Ballmer’s Brilliant Plan: Make Microsoft ‘Cool’

When you try to think of the most groundbreaking “devices and services” company in the world today, the first name that comes to mind is…Microsoft, right?

No? Well, CEO Steve Ballmer wants to change all that, and he’s got a brilliant, semi-secret plan to do it—by making the company “cool” again. See those air quotes? Oh yeah, we’re totally (not) feeling it.

Ballmer’s recent letter to shareholders promises to deliver more products like the Xbox (which is actually pretty cool) and the Surface (which is an iPad with a kickstand) as well as the brand new MS Office and Windows 8, opening on PC screens near you later this month. Ballmer also plans to focus more on omnipresent cloud services, which will be key to any electronics company looking to compete in the market of the future—or the present, come to think of it.

By referring to “a new era”, Ballmer all but concedes that his company has fallen behind a certain fruit-themed competitor—a theory reinforced by Kurt Eichenwald’s Vanity Fair article about Microsoft’s “lost decade” which notes that the iPhone currently “brings in more revenue than the entirety of Microsoft”. The article focuses on bureaucracy inhibiting innovation—and, you know, we haven’t heard about too many ground-breaking products emerging from Microsoft in recent years. Have you?

How is the company going to make its products “cool” again (if they ever were)? One strategy is to focus on aesthetic appeal, which has never been a priority for the makers of clunky desktops and black square laptops as appealing as bricks. The company’s updated user interfaces do show some promise—the new Windows UI looks like a big improvement, and the concept of “gesture recognition”, or using one’s hands to make commands, has potential–at least the MacBook can’t do it.

But will these changes make Microsoft “cool”? We doubt it, because public perception isn’t something that can be forced.

Microsoft isn’t just working overtime to compete with Apple, either—Ballmer would love to take Google down a notch while he’s at it. We will say this: if the boss’s idea of “cool” is this series of ubiquitously annoying Bing ads, we may have to send him back to the drawing board:

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.