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Linux Netbook Pioneer's Bizarre 'It's Better With Windows' Campaign

Style Without Substance

  • June 8, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield
Bruce Byfield

When the Asus Eee PC was first released two years ago, its operating system was GNU/Linux. Now, if the local stores are any indication of global trends, it's hard to find an Asus notebook that doesn't run Windows.

Technically, you can still get them with GNU/Linux, but the company's product page only announces the fact by omission, by not listing the available operating system on some models.

All of which only makes the It's Better with Windows campaign puzzling -- to all appearances, Microsoft already dominates the Eee product line.

However, despite the first flurry of rumors that the campaign was a hoax, Asus has admitted that the campaign is legitimate. In a way, the news is a relief. For those of us who have looked askance at Microsoft's sponsoring of open source conferences and efforts to create its own open source ecosystem, the It's Better with Windows site is a return to the familiar. At least when Microsoft is spinning half-truths about free and open source software (FOSS), you can be in no doubt where everybody stands.

The site is very much a classic piece of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt), the likes of which we may never see again as Microsoft becomes more subtle in its struggle to survive in a market where FOSS is a player.

Or, if you prefer more diplomatic language, you might say that the site is a prime example of marketing when the substance is lacking. Answering its claims provides a certain nostalgic amusement -- even if the effort is ridiculously easy, like outrunning someone with a leg cast and crutches.

Painting a pretty picture

You can tell that little separates the products in a market when manufacturers start selling lifestyle ads: ones that focus visually on associating a product with desirable images.

That's why chemically-aged beer is sold with scenes of young adults partying, and why cigarette manufacturers have always tailored their adds to particular ways of life, like the rugged individualism of the caricature cowboy. The same is true when bread and toilet paper are sold. In such cases, complete transparency would force manufacturers to admit that their products were almost identical to their rivals'.

The It's Better with Windows site consists of a single page that has a late Nineties design, making it look amateurish to a modern eye. However, the Flash video that is its main content falls squarely into the category of lifestyle advertising. It consists of four ninety-second ads of family life: a woman in the kitchen, children going off to school, teenage girls frolicking on the beach (discretely covered, needless to say), and a man on a business trip contacting his family. In all these activities, an Eee features prominently, being stuffed into the children's backpacks before they run off, receiving pictures from a camera, and serving as the connection for separated family members.

The clips even show a boy looking happily on while his father sets the parental controls on the computer. Never mind that any flesh and blood kid that I know would be screaming or sulking at this abuse of adult authority; such a degree of realism wouldn't fit the unsubtle lifestyle message: An Asus Eee loaded with Windows is a central part of modern, loving family life. This message is reinforced with all the subtlety of a semi-trailer barreling down the highway by feel-good captions like "connect and share" and "stay in touch."

By contrast, I assume, an Eee loaded with GNU/Linux belongs to the worlds of terrorists, trade unionists, S&M clubs, and other renegade loners such as atheists and evolutionists.

The basic message

Just in case you miss the lifestyle message, three basic arguments are listed below the video. Apparently, though, the designers of It's Better with Windows never learned their basic grammar. If they had, they would have known that if you are going to compare something, you need a minimum of two objects. In their eagerness to avoid giving aid and comfort to the enemy, they forget to mention just what a Windows Eee might be better than.

Of course, a comparison with GNU/Linux is clearly implied. I suspect, though, that the site would be puzzling to average computer users, many of whom have never heard of GNU/Linux, or even an operating system. If anything, they might imagine that the site was aimed against a Mac. By contrast, those who understand the comparison are unlikely to be swayed by the brief statements.

The first statement is entitled "Trusted." It explains that "Windows delivers a dependable experience that Microsoft and a worldwide community of partners stand behind." Apparently, the designers of the site seem to have missed that it's been years since the majority of users trusted Windows, or viewed it as anything except a necessary evil. Probably the last word they would use to describe it is "dependable" -- but, then, the word is likely a dig at the diversity of GNU/Linux distributions.

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