Wanted: Iconoclasts

I can think of worse jobs than standing around in a full-body black leotard and a huge foam letter “X” or “P” wrapped around me. But not many.

You have to pity them, the people Microsoft has been hiring over the last few months to promote its forthcoming Windows XP operating system. The “XPeons,” as I like to call them, have been spotted all over Toronto at major intersections, handing out beta versions of the OS to confused, amused and sometimes irritated passersby. I fall into the third category. It drove me crazy earlier this summer at Comdex Canada 2001, where the XPeons were stationed on either side of the escalators that led to the trade show floor. I tried to politely decline their CDs at first, but by the third day I brushed past them without a word, dodging to avoid a piece of foam hitting my face as the escalator descended.

This invasion of what’s supposed to be a public area is not unlike Microsoft’s dictum that PC manufacturers who wish to populate the desktop with icons include at least three Microsoft icons. These include Internet Explorer, MSN and Windows Media Player.

This whole icon debate, much like the recent brouhaha over Smart Tags, seems pretty trivial at first. Earlier this year I went to a sneak peek of what was then called Office 10, and company executives pitched Smart Tags as a way to help users get more out of their Internet experience by directing them to products and services through hyperlinks in Web pages. Innocuous enough, until you consider the deeper implications and the considerable power of suggestion that comes into play. If Microsoft has control over which products and services get linked, the Internet becomes a portal through which we see only Microsoft’s point of view. Like a shopping mall in which you are only shown the path to specific stores, not necessarily the best stores for what you want.

No doubt due to the ongoing legal pressure it is facing by the United States Department of Justice, which will hold more hearings on its antitrust case later this year, Microsoft has loosened the licensing terms for XP. For possibly the first time, it will offer XP to PC manufacturers without the Internet Explorer icon, providing OEMs do not put any other icons on the desktop. This is a shrewd way of shifting the burden of fair play onto the computer makers, who risk looking just as guilty as Microsoft of attempting to monopolize the Wintel audience.

The desktop, of course, represents one of the great branding opportunities of our time. In the next 20 years almost everyone will be using one to some degree, and the names that appear at logon will be the ones they remember. This is a case where branding can almost certainly translate into enormous revenue. Though Dell and Gateway have indicated they will not bite, I fear that few of their rivals will resist the potential.

It’s interesting that we call these things “icons” and not “brands,” which would be a better way of expressing their real function. Icon is a word traditionally used to define an object of worship. In the Bible (forgive me, I’m Catholic) they were false gods.

PC manufacturers have a unique opportunity to prove they care about their customers are much as they say they do. Even Microsoft has admitted its users have told the company they prefer a desktop free of icons. If Compaq, IBM, HP and others can keep temptation at bay, their decision will set a precedent that could force Microsoft to maintain a more flexible licensing system. It would also protect one of the last public spaces in an electronic environment blanketed with corporate propaganda. I urge them, just this once, to do the right thing.

sschick@plesman.com

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