Stay Tuned/Intel Is Tragically Unhip

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Intel Is Tragically Unhip
19 October 1997

It's sad when a company feels the urge to tinker with its image needlessly. It's even worse when they do so and make a mess of it.

In my typical unresearched way, I have not bothered to check on Intel's financial figures. But they have to be huge. Intel is the key presence in the current personal computer market, whether you believe it or not. Shall I defend that?

Instead of saying "DOS computer" (obsolete) or "Windows computer" (inaccurate, since Windows has been ported to other, non-Intel systems) or "Microsoft computer" (also inaccurate, since Microsoft is Everywhere), we should be defining this dominant portion of the microcomputer market ("microcomputer," for you young whippersnappers, is what "personal computers" were before the marketing people caught up with the industry) as "Intel computers" - to separate them from "Motorola computers" and "Alpha computers" and so forth.

Yes, Microsoft is the gorilla on everyone's back. But at the moment they too are dependent on Intel. If Intel suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, Microsoft would retool and revamp and start churning out software for some other chip ... eventually. The shakeup would be enormous.

The primary defining item of a computer, you see, is its CPU - the Big Chip. The software, although much more obvious to the user, is largely interchangeable. There's no good reason you couldn't run MacOS on an Intel processor, or Solaris on a Motorola processor, beyond the fact that no one has chosen to adapt the OS for that chip. So it's reasonable to say that the biggest current slice of the personal computer pie is defined by, and exists due to, the presence of Intel chips.

But few users think this way. They don't say "I run a computer with a Motorola CPU." They say instead, "I have a Mac."

So Intel is probably justified in believing that no one but geeks and industry analysts know who's really in charge of this huge market.

Microsoft is, of course.

Whoops! Wrong answer.

See, Intel also has a little ego problem. The impression I get is that they think that Microsoft, however big, would be nowhere without them (and fails to show suitable gratitude). Which is sorta true - although it would be more accurate to say that Microsoft would be nowhere without IBM, whose immediate need for a quick-and-dirty OS resulted in the first DOS computers and started the ball rolling.

As for gratitude, you can't blame Microsoft for not wanting to put all its eggs in one basket - hence their porting NT to Alpha chips, and tossing some money at Apple to try to keep them afloat. To Microsoft, Apple's OS may be a competitor, but the small Apple segment really doesn't fret them much, and they can still make money by writing MacOS versions of their applications, such as Word. They're just playing as many angles as possible.

But Microsoft is a discussion for another day.

Intel is not entirely stupid. They know that the big market segment is home consumers - you and I, presumably. They know that most consumers couldn't care less which chip is in the computer. So they embarked on the "Intel Inside" campaign. Getting the hardware vendors to stick the little labels on the computers was a good idea, but the TV ads (remember the dolphins swimming out of the Intel chip?) were not. The problem here is that there is no good way to make computer innards sexy.

And as bad as those ads were, the new campaign is even worse.

Why would Intel want to be hip and trendy? Who cares? The risk of any ad where you try to look hip and trendy is that you will fail, and then you will look out-of-touch and stupid.

First Intel's Pentium II ads had the people in identical white clean-room suits, with one guy in a day-glo purple suit doing a little disco dance while he worked. Aside from the mixed message (clean rooms are supposed to be precise, rigid, humorless places - anything else, even as a joke, undermines confidence in the work), what's with the 70's disco theme? Is Intel out of date or just oblivious?

The tag, having to do with putting the "fun" back in, ignores the fact that chips aren't supposed to be fun. They're supposed to be invisible and reliable. Software is sometimes fun. Hardware is not. The public, however naive, understands this instinctively.

Then suddenly there were a whole bunch of people in brightly colored clean-room suits (which Intel inexplicably refers to as Bunny People, either so they can trademark the term - which they have - or because Clean Room People wasn't "fun" enough). And more bad disco. It would not have surprised me at all if there had been breakdancing, but apparently that would have been too daring.

And then ... they went on a road trip. Which is exactly how Intel puts it in the ad. The garish Intel van is even now touring the country, complete with people in gaudy clean-room suits, who are probably thankful that the suits hide their faces.

Road trip? This is not Animal House. This ain't no disco. Those days are over. Your audience, Intel, is not a bunch of party-loving frat boys. Your audience is a group of adults and young adults who take buying a computer very seriously, and are not so dumb that they're going to buy a computer just because the chip is "fun."

If you wanted the soft-sell - trying to get people to establish a "brand preference" for your hardware without cramming tons of statistics down their throats - then you should have taken a page from the late lamented Power Computing ads, or the ads from computer gaming magazines, and gone for the "This Computer Is Fast Enough To Kick the Competition's Ass" approach. Not only is it more entertaining, it actually has some meaning to your potential customers. If it's reliable and fast, the customers will find their own "fun" things to do on it.

Even if Intel had chosen a different set of ads, one which successfully raised consumer perception of their product, the question would have remained: was it necessary to do anything at all?

After all, Intel holds an undisputed lead in terms of being in the most boxes on the most home desktops. They're already on top. Other companies make faster chips and better chips, yet Intel continues to stay ahead. And as long as Microsoft keeps cooperating, and Intel keeps meeting demand, nothing will jeopardize that lead, regardless of any flaws the chips might or might not have.

So the simplest explanation is: Intel not only has an ego problem, they're a trifle insecure.

Sounds like yet another perception gap to me.

Other Business

Irrelevant consumption note: Difficult as it may be to believe, Nabisco has found a way to improve on the Nutter Butter cookie. It's so obvious that I'm surprised they didn't do it sooner: the chocolate Nutter Butter. This is not good news for me, as this is the only other cookie besides chocolate chip which I am willing to consume in large quantities, and the chocolate improves them (although, to be fair, you can't really taste the chocolate much - it provides a better foil for the peanut butter, but isn't obviously "chocolatey.") Go try them. End of irrelevant note.


[February 2007:] Well, various details have changed, as usual (I don't know why I ever try to write about technology, it goes obsolete so fast), but Intel is still the secret master of personal computer hardware. Perhaps because they know this, or perhaps because they have gotten a clue, the heyday of Intel advertising was a passing fad; nowadays the company has gone back to stealth mode, with only a trail of press releases and Intel Inside stickers to give a clue just how powerful they are.

In retrospect, it really does seem like Intel went through a period of insecurity and paranoia around the time this article was written. I'm still not clear on exactly why it happened - a more detailed industry analyst than me might be able to make some guesses. But the fit seems to have passed.

Speaking of power, someone apparently listened to my advice, and nowadays when a CPU or another chunk of hardware (such as a video card) is advertised, the approach taken generally is the "we are powerful enough to knock you across the room" one. On the whole, I like that approach much better, but then, I'm a geek.

The chocolate Nutter Butter appears not to have lasted any longer than any of the other Nutter Butter variations Nabisco has tried since then. However, at present there appears to be a chocolate coated Nutter Butter, which is even more dangerous.

and now back to our program

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