Here's a question you probably never thought we'd be asking about the company that makes Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook: Is Microsoft getting cool?
Hang onto your pocket protector, Mr. Clippy: That is at least a partial implication of new findings put out by the consumer sentiment firm YouGov, which found Microsoft's public approval rating -- its "Buzz score," in YouGov's parlance -- surging as of late. YouGov spokesman Drew Kerr said in an email that Microsoft "is experiencing one of its best consumer perception surges of the past 21 months," thanks to the positive reception of ad campaigns for the surprising Surface tablet, the ambitious Windows 8 operating system and the stalwart joke-punchline Bing search engine.
Against all odds, a hipster exodus to Microsoft might be afoot.
Microsoft advertisements do, indeed, seem to be skewing younger and cooler. A song by indie favorites Eagles of Death Metal (no, that is not a misprint) was featured in the first TV commercial for Windows 8, and the dubstep insta-classic "Too Close" by Alex Clare soundtracks a well-choreographed Internet Explorer ad in current rotation. Microsoft went with a speaker-blasting in-house composition for its Surface tablet that sent YouTube commenters a-squeal.
It's the kind of musical smarts that Apple mastered in its initial run of iPod ads being used to tinge the first impression most Americans have of Microsoft's entire line of services and hardware. Cool points: Microsoft.
This musical reinvention accompanies a design revolution at Microsoft, too. Windows Phone, Microsoft's little-used operating system for smartphones, has won heaps of praise for its layout and freshness. So, too, has Windows Phone's big brother, Windows 8, as well as its most well-known banner carrier, the Surface tablet. Even Internet Explorer -- once a microcosmic representation of all that was ugly, overloaded and unintuitive about the Windows operating system -- has been cleaned up and is earning applause from critics.
Clean, innovative design is dominating Microsoft in a way that it -- clearly, desperately -- never had before. Cool points: Microsoft.
If YouGov's numbers are correct, all that design work and Pitchfork-friendly musical curation is paying off with the public, at least in terms of perception. Whether it pays off in the literal sense -- profits, product adoption, rise in stock price -- is still in the offing.
Indeed, Microsoft's rising consumer approval arrives at a precarious time for the company, one in which its decades-long grasp on personal computing seems to be slipping away to rival Apple. Worldwide PC sales are slipping as consumers opt instead for tablets, mostly the iPad. Smartphones, too, are a rising personal computing device, and Microsoft has yet to gain a meaningful foothold with its Windows Phone operating system. With the mega-launch of the last-ditch Windows Phone 8 platform occurring in November, current Windows Phone market share still sits below 5 percent. Bing, Microsoft's search engine, consistently loses hundreds of millions of dollars each quarter, despite some recent gains against rival Google.
Microsoft remains profitable, of course: Sales of PCs running Windows still bring in tons of cash, and recent major acquisitions of Skype and Yammer have been lauded as good moves for the company. But while profitability has long been stable, public appreciation has not. Apple was always the critical and customer darling, Microsoft the behemoth, unfeeling corporation.
But after nearly a decade of public idolatry and Microsoft-bashing from tech critics and young people alike, we may finally be seeing a thawing of that dominant dogma. Between its overzealous patent litigation, botched handling of the iOS 6 Maps transition and somewhat stagnant design progression, Apple has turned some people off over the past year (see: any article on Reddit about Apple). Microsoft may be in a position to win over those jaded, discontented former Apple fans and take the crown of cool from its longtime rival.
That's a big, huge, so-many-contingencies-and-variables "maybe," of course. And, too, all of this appropriation of "hip" music and aesthetic pleasantness may be deemed as too little, too late, to sway the opinion of an America who still associates Microsoft with TI-83 nerdery and Dilbert-ian office drudgery. But maybe -- just maybe -- if Microsoft sticks to its design-forward revolution and commitment to user satisfaction, it might just find itself winning over some honest-to-God fans, and not just the cubicle-types who are forced to use its software at the local business complex.