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Microsoft and Seinfeld: A Comedy of Errors?

Microsoft and Seinfeld: A Comedy of Errors?

Microsoft's hiring of Jerry Seinfeld as a Windows Vista pitchman had the Linux community in stitches last week. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that it's an indication Windows has jumped the shark. Dell's plans to ship a subnotebook with Ubuntu gave bloggers a further boost.

By Katherine Noyes
08/25/08 4:00 AM PT

It's not often we here at LinuxInsider get to write about celebrities -- other than the Richard Stallman variety, of course -- and indeed, many of the geeks who grace our pages from time to time seem to shun the limelight rather than seek it out. So it was with great glee this week that we found cause to mention none other than Jerry Seinfeld.

Indeed, as our sister publication reported on Thursday, the comedian famous for his stories about nothing will soon be a spokesman for much the same, some might say -- specifically, Microsoft and its beleaguered Vista operating system. Seinfeld will reportedly receive some US$10 million for his role in the curiously titled "Windows, Not Walls" campaign.

As one might expect, this news was met with great interest on the Linux blogs, where geeks far and wide pondered what it all means about the state of affairs in Redmond.

Desperate Measures?

"I remember having a conversation with a friend several years ago, about how when a TV show starts losing its ratings, they will almost always bring in a celebrity to try and revive it," Slashdot blogger Mhall119 told LinuxInsider. "I think someone at Microsoft marketing must be from the TV industry."

There's even a certain likeness between Vista and Seinfeld's "Bee Movie," which "got about as good a reception as Vista," Mhall119 added. Of course, "somehow I doubt that was the kind of comparison Microsoft was hoping to make."

Along similar lines: "What could be more appropriate than using professional comedians as Vista pitchmen?" asked Carla Schroder on the Linux Today blog. "I wish they'd use Judy Tenuta -- now that would be ads that bite."

Microsoft had a chance to set a good first impression "and they blew it, and then they blew the second impression too," Gerhard Mack, a Montreal-based consultant and Slashdot blogger, told LinuxInsider. "I can't imagine what they think Seinfeld can do to help. My customers won't go near Vista at this point, and I doubt anything other than a new OS release would fix that."

Memories of Days Gone By

It's possible Microsoft intends to build on its recent campaign "comparing Vista detractors with flat earth followers," Mack added. But "if that's what they are planning, it will backfire big time. I can see random insults moving things from the average person hating Vista to the average person hating Microsoft. No one likes being told they're an idiot."

On the other hand, in some ways Seinfeld is "the perfect spokesman for Windows -- built on technology developed before the Internet, well-known but not very relevant and even though you really can't avoid Windows, nobody is fanatical about it," added Kevin Dean, a blogger on Monochrome Mentality. "That really has a synergy with Seinfeld. You can turn on any broadcast channel in any city in America and be sure they're playing episodes of Seinfeld, but nobody is actually a regular viewer of those episodes.

"As much as Seinfeld was great during its heyday, watching it today very clearly dates it and exposes that it's not as timeless as they'd like you to believe," Dean told LinuxInsider.

The fact that Seinfeld's popularity dates back to another era could be particularly telling. "I fear that by drawing on this star of the '90s, Microsoft may be showing its longing to return to a time when buying a computer meant buying Windows," Jay Lyman, an analyst with the 451 Group, wrote on his blog. "Ahh ... memories."

Another Point for Linux

Speaking of memories and Windows' bygone heyday, news that Dell's forthcoming subnotebook PC will ship with Ubuntu sparked significant interest on the blogs, including Slashdot, where some 250 enthusiastic comments had appeared by Friday.

There's little doubt left in many minds that Linux is gaining ground as Windows loses it, but just how much isn't entirely clear. On that very question, Thomas Teisberg on the Linux Loop sparked a particularly animated discussion last week about whether it's even possible to assess Linux's market share.

Measuring the Market

"Short of every Linux distro calling home, which I hope will never happen, there may never be a way to know how many Linux users there are," Teisberg wrote. "Perhaps the downloads of some cross-platform application would give a rough idea, but that application would have to be something that a Linux user, a Mac user, and a Windows user would want equally. If anyone has a better idea, I would love to hear it."

More than 40 suggestions followed, prompting Teisberg to post a follow-up response.

Perhaps the best of those ideas came from Richard Chapman, who wrote, "Although it's difficult to tell how many people are using Linux, Microsoft must have a very good idea of how many people are not using Vista."

Touché!

Multidimensional Challenge

"It's a bit (though not entirely) like trying to calculate the 'market value' of food from a home kitchen compared to that of restaurant meals," Slashdot editor Timothy Lord told LinuxInsider.

At the same time, though, "measurement of prices paid is not the only (difficult) task," Lord added. "You also have to consider the cost of sampling (don't like Ubuntu? Try Fedora -- quickly and free); opportunity costs for the software itself (a low price now, even for what is perceived as lower quality goods in some contexts, means money available for other things); and freedom to experiment and recombine (perhaps Windows makes sense for some people in a given organization, but the data-entry might taste just as good if done on Linux-based thin terminals)."

Market share "makes less sense as a concept when the market is as fluid as the free-software world," Lord explained. "Machines dual boot, are repurposed, are used as VM hosts, or serve apps to dozens of other machines which may or may not be running the same OS in the first place. And not just for free software -- sure, you can count certificate or license sales for various versions of Windows, but does anyone even pretend that represents the total number of Windows installs?"

Contributors, Not Users

Rather than focusing on the number of users, "the best metric to measure the success or failure of an open source project is the number of users moved enough to contribute their vision to the project, which enables more people to benefit," Dean asserted. "That number, not the number of users, will measure how much momentum any push for change will get."

Finally, we'd be remiss not to mention one of the most active discussions on Slashdot we've seen in some time -- with nearly 1,000 comments -- which arose last week focused on Adobe's failure to produce a version of Flash that works reliably on Linux.

"It has occurred to me that Flash on Linux is the one major entry barrier controlling acceptance of Linux as a viable desktop operating system," charged mwilliamson. "No matter how stably, smoothly, efficiently, and correctly Linux runs on a machine, the public will continue to view it as second-rate if Flash keeps crashing.... I really do have to suspect Adobe's motivation for keeping Flash on Linux in such a deplorable state."

Adobe's products -- like much proprietary software -- "suffer from ubiquity fatigue," Mhall119 noted. "Once everybody is using it, they don't put any effort into making it work better. That's not to say that open source software is always better, but at least with open source, the more popular your software is, the more effort is being put into improving it."

Flash in the Pan?

Along similar lines: "Flash has never been particularly 'good'," Dean said. "It crashes a lot (on Windows and Linux), it's annoying (on Windows and Linux). The only question I have is, Why do people still care about Flash?"

Ultimately, the result could be an opening for that comedian-hiring behemoth in Redmond, Mack warned.

"Silverlight's only chance for survival is Adobe screwing Flash up, and boy do they seem to be going out of their way to do that," he charged.

"Adobe needs to realize that they are still not considered anything other than a toy by most businesses, and in the end no one will design their OS decisions while even keeping Flash in mind," he added. "If a number of desktops can't support Flash then that, quite frankly, will be the end of Flash."


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