Thanks to Microsoft, the Cloud Meets The Onion

Perhaps Steve Ballmer didn’t deserve all the flack he caught for exclaiming that Microsoft (s msft) is “all in” for cloud computing. After all, the company that made the PC omnipresent in American homes is now trying – and maybe succeeding – to do the same thing with cloud computing.

You might have heard commercials for its cloud products on NPR lately; you’ve no doubt seen a frustrated mother on television going “to the cloud” to edit family photos. The Office writer and The Onion contributor Amelie Gillette certainly has. Last week, Microsoft’s cloud TV ad made its way into her Tolerability Index (at a point between “Mildly Irritating” and “Unbearable”), a weekly feature in the A.V. Club section of the iconic humor publication. Gillette’s seeming misunderstanding of what the commercial is trying to sell her — the cloud is not a “representation of how computers work” — got me thinking about how effective mainstream advertisements for high-technology concepts really are.

The Microsoft TV spot in question is strangely vague. Playing at seemingly all times across the channel lineup, the commercial shows a woman sitting at a PC pasting smiling faces onto a photo of her posed, but unruly, husband and children. Somehow, going “to the cloud” makes this all possible, as if she lives in a world where Photoshop (s adbe) doesn’t exist. What Microsoft fails to mention is what it means to go to the cloud: the photo-editing application resides on a server far, far away. If Microsoft’s target demographic is middle-aged mothers who spend their free time taking family portraits, I think it missed the mark. I don’t think many viewers understand, or care, what the cloud is after having seen this ad.


This isn’t the first time a software vendor has pitched advanced concepts via television. One can rarely watch a golf tournament, for example, without seeing commercials for IBM’s (s ibm) Smarter Planet initiative. In 2005, Oracle (s orcl) took to the airwaves during cable news shows and the NBA Finals to tout its 10g grid computing software. IBM talks about results without mentioning its analytics products, but it’s safe to assume some viewers have experience with databases and business intelligence. They know what IBM is selling.


In true Oracle fashion, it didn’t pull punches in its commercial. The ad described, essentially, what the Oracle Grid is and why it matters. Forget that many in the grid community laughed at Oracle’s definition of grid computing; if viewers didn’t know what grid computing was, they had some idea after seeing the 15-second commercial. Of course, if they were Oracle customers – which many in the relatively sophisticated target audience likely were – they probably had been beat about the head with Oracle’s flagship grid software, Oracle Database 10g, for months prior to the commercial’s air date.


This difference between Microsoft and IBM and Oracle, though, is that Microsoft — with its PC, mobile and Office Live product lines — has to convince consumers to buy into its new strategies. So convince them: Tell them what it means to compute in the cloud and why it matters. Tell them they don’t need to buy or upgrade expensive processors or software, tell them they can access their photos and files from anywhere. Microsoft does a better job with others commercials in this campaign – targeted toward startups and travelers – but it needs to hit the mark consistently. The mothers and fathers of the world who care more about price and convenience than about collaborating on presentations or accessing recorded TV shows at the airport need to know why Microsoft and why the cloud.

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