Advertising Anachronism

Every morning I see this billboard ad in Boston’s South Station:Surface2

The ad is for the struggling Surface 2 tablet. Unable to build momentum since the launch of the original Surface in late 2012, Microsoft has doubled down on marketing its combined laptop/tablet product, and these ads have run for months.

Visually the images are eye-catching, reflecting the company’s new colorful aesthetic. And it does a nice job conveying the core marketing messages: this product combines a laptop and tablet; it’s for both work and play; it’s new yet familiar, etc.

But it was the middle image in particular that stuck out to me. It’s obviously intended to highlight the Type Cover keyboard, and the closeup frames the key with the new Windows logo. But it’s slightly off-center, so that the eye also focuses on the Alt key.

And that’s what stopped me. Why Alt?

Alt has been standard on PC keyboards since at least 1981, and has been lodged next to the Windows key since 1994. Its original purpose was as a modifier, multiplying the possible keystrokes one could input, before the advent of the graphical user interface obsoleted that need. Today, most Windows PC users only use it for a few idiosyncratic functions, like Alt-Tab to switch between windows and the infamous Control-Alt-Delete for logging in and calling up the task manager.

In other words, the Alt key is the quintessential vestige, like the human tailbone – an anachronism. No one designing a new keyboard or operating system de novo today would include it. True to form, Apple – famed for ruthlessly eliminating features that begin to outlive their usefulness – didn’t include Alt on the iOS keyboard for iPhone and iPad. So why has Microsoft kept it?

This gets to the heart of why Microsoft is being disrupted. Every business and product line accumulates barnacles, but for a long time, Microsoft had far more to lose from defeaturing the products at the center of its near-perfect business model than it stood to gain from tearing things down and starting over. When that’s been true for long enough, an organization becomes incapable of severing its vestigial organs and designing from scratch. And when that stops being true, the persisting inability can be fatal.

So even if the ad’s focus on the Alt key is unintentional, the message it symbolizes is quite deliberate. The entire Surface and Windows 8 strategy was a half-step into the future of tablets and touch, and its ads reassure its past customers “Don’t worry. This is familiar. We haven’t made a clean break with the past.

But the product is compromised and the strategy has failed. Microsoft’s strength has become its weakness. As mobile rises and the personal computer falls, all Microsoft can do is stand athwart progress yelling Stop.

In a world where Apple ritually kills its darlings, where Google launches moonshots no one sees coming, and where Samsung employees still live by their chairman’s order to “change everything but your wife and kids,” Microsoft advertises a brightly colored, defunct key more than 30 years old. Like Gatsby, Microsoft tragically fights for a future that continues to recede into the past. All it’s advertising is its own failure to adapt.

17 thoughts on “Advertising Anachronism

  1. Pingback: Design is About Intent | Rampant Innovation

  2. Apple didn’t drop the alt key from iOS because it has outlived its usefulness – they dropped it because it serves no purpose *on iOS*. On devices where the keyboard is useful and important, the alt key is still there, including on Apple’s laptops. That’s because applications and users rely on it constantly.

    I have not spent a single day in the last ten years where I did not use the alt key. It’s used in keyboard shortcuts for editing text and invoking application commands. That’s important on a computer doing complicated work – not so much on smartphones with their very simplistic apps and behaviours.

    • Agreed. I use my alt/option key every single day, most often when I want to drag/copy text. If I were to do that without the key, it would take 4 clicks instead of the one click plus key press. I don’t edit documents in this way (really not at all) on iOS, so I don’t miss the key there.

    • But the Alt (Option) key could well have had a purpose on iOS. It serves a very real purpose on OS X, for example, so it’s no great stretch to imagine putting it on iOS as well. Instead, Apple found a different solution to the problem that it solves, which is more appropriate for touchscreens.

      Wouldn’t most companies have just copied the Alt key to their mobile devices? The Android on-screen keyboard, for example, does have an Alt key. It’s hard to argue that something is inevitable when their closest competitor chose the opposite.

    • It’s not about whether we still use the Alt key. It’s about whether, if you were designing an input method from scratch, the Alt key is necessary.

    • Should I point out that iOS still supports the Alt key? Apple included it on the iPad keyboard dock http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow_viewer/0,3253,l=249763&a=249764&po=1,00.asp — and although that has since been discontinued, iOS still supports the Alt key when using a Bluetooth keyboard: for entering accented characters and symbols, and for moving the text cursor a word at a time (a godsend for editing text).

      Speaking of vestigial remnants, iOS also supports the same subset of Emacs editing commands that OS X does: Ctrl+A, Ctrl+E, Ctrl+K, Ctrl+Y, and so on — again, when using an external keyboard. Not so ruthless.

  3. The ALT key puzzles you? Not the WINDOWS key on a computer that is supposed to always run apps fullscreen, instead of multiple windows?

  4. I have to disagree about Alt/Option. Sure, on Windows its use is completely inconsistant and does feel like a DOS throwback. But on Mac, in my opinion it’s beautifully executed to extend the keyboard in a predictable way. Designers love it. Want a minus sign? Minus key. En dash? Option+Minus Key. Em dash? Shift+Option+Minus Key.

    Why is this so great? Nobody has time to memorize every keyboard shortcut, but Mac cleverly uses Option and Shift+Option to make most shortcuts easy enough to guess.

    I needed to type a degree sign (°) the other day, and I figured it out. I looked at my keyboard, saw the 8/asterisk, and thought “that kind of looks like a degree symbol.” Option+8? Close, but no. Shift+Option+8? Bingo. With Windows, I would have spent a couple minutes experimenting, then looking it up online and probably discovered some arbitrary 4-digit code to type while holding down ALT. Windows is frustrating and unpredictable. The problem is execution—not the ALT key.

    I understand why ALT/Option would be removed under the constraints of a mobile touchscreen keyboard, but I hope it sticks around Mac OS for a long time to come. If you haven’t, just play with it sometime in your favorite application. It’s delightful!

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