Wandering Through the Desert With Windows

Microsoft’s strange, passive-aggressive “Mojave Experiment.’

Farhad Manjoo chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Stills from the Mojave Experiment

In mid-July, representatives of Microsoft traveled to San Francisco in search of people who hated Windows Vista. The company recruited 140 Mac and PC users who thought Microsoft’s latest operating system was slow, that it crashed constantly, that it was incompatible with various devices, and that installing it would be a pain. None of these people had ever used Vista; they’d only heard from others that it sucked. When they were asked to watch a short demonstration of a brand-new Microsoft operating system called Windows Mojave, the Vista-haters were blown away. The new OS was quick and pretty, it handled photos and videos and music with aplomb, and it never crashed. “Why didn’t you guys release this instead of that Vista crap?” many wondered.

But that was the trick. Windows “Mojave” was really Windows Vista. Microsoft filmed the focus-group sessions using hidden cameras, and when the company rep dropped the news to the Vista haters, many were pleasantly surprised. “I had no idea that you could do all this with Windows Vista!” was a typical reaction. The company has since posted the videos online as part of a new ad campaign dubbed “the Mojave Experiment” (the ads are running here at Slate). But the experiment is a strangely passive-aggressive way to sell software. “You were wrong—Vista totally doesn’t suck as much as you thought!” is hardly a reason to pick up a new OS.

Microsoft has sold more than 180 million copies of Vista in a year and a half; in surveys, the vast majority of Vista owners say they’re satisfied with the software. But there are 1 billion Windows users in the world, and a lot of them seem terrified of adopting Vista. True, evidence for the Vista malaise is mainly circumstantial—retailers and PC manufacturers say that customers are still asking for good old Windows XP, big companies are choosing to wait for Windows 7, Mac sales are skyrocketing, and PC makers have been touting the ease with which customers can “downgrade” from Vista to XP. Every other day, the tech press has a new report on people’s Vista difficulties. One recent headline: “Man gets Windows Vista to work with printer.”

But here’s the only proof you need that folks are absolutely horrified about the prospect of using Vista: Microsoft had to rebrand the software and set up 22 hidden cameras just to persaude people to try it out. This sort of sales tactic might work for instant coffee, a product that everyone understands is a bastardization of something much better. The only way to get people to drink Folgers is to fool them into it. But for an operating system that Microsoft aims to convince us represents the state of the art in personal computing, this sort of trickery seems to convey, at best, a mixed message. Sure, people thought Vista was cool once they were tricked into using it. But if you’ve got to fool them, haven’t you already lost?

That’s not to say that Microsoft doesn’t have a point. Vista isn’t a terrible operating system. Since its release, Microsoft and hardware makers have done much to improve its usability, and in many ways—its strength against viruses and other malware, for instance—Vista is much better than Windows XP. Participants in the Mojave Experiment were selected based on an obviously irrational aversion to Vista. They were silly to have hated Vista without ever trying it. And that’s what the experiment proved—that people who blindly believe that Vista is a nightmare are happy to learn that it’s not.

But it’s also important to point out what Microsoft’s test doesn’t prove: that you should buy Windows Vista. Participants in the Mojave Experiment handled the software for just a few minutes, and they were helped along by a technician who showed them the ins and outs (a service that Apple offers for new Mac buyers but which you’d be hard-pressed to find for a Windows machine). The test subjects didn’t have to suffer through the frustration of installing the OS, setting it up to work with a printer or home network, starting it up, shutting it down, or seeing it drag during a fast-paced game. Nor were participants given a chance to test Vista against other operating systems: Would they have reacted differently had they been shown Mac OS X or Windows XP side by side with Vista? We don’t know, but giving people that chance would have made for a more compelling argument.

I asked Microsoft to explain the impetus behind the Mojave campaign. In an e-mail, a spokesman said that while the company has improved the operating system tremendously since its release, it worried that “perceptions have not necessarily kept pace with reality” and that people who harbored “a negative perception hadn’t actually seen or used the product.” Bill Veghte, Microsoft’s Windows unit business chief, recently told that Vista users “feel guilty” about declaring their love for it because the rest of the world thinks it’s a bad OS. The new campaign is aimed at overturning this guilt, at getting everyone to realize that Windows Vista is nothing to be ashamed of.

It’s probably not a bad idea for Microsoft to work on Vista’s image. But with the Mojave campaign, Microsoft seems to be arguing that all of Vista’s problems are matters of perception. The OS is truly wonderful, and we’re fools to have mistaken it for a dud. Of course, if that were really the case, the solution for Microsoft would be easy: It could simply relaunch Windows Vista as Windows Mojave.

But there’s a reason a simple rebranding won’t work, the same reason that we’ve heard stories about people who switch to Vista and then decide to switch back to Windows XP. For much of Vista’s first year, many users had a terrible time with it. Those were real problems, not fantasies. Vista is much better now, but given the software’s early months, people aren’t fools to be skeptical. And it’ll take more than trickery to convince wary customers. Folgers might taste delicious when it’s poured from a golden carafe at a swanky restaurant, but everyone knows that when you make the stuff at home, it’s simply vile.