Hide Your IPod, Here Comes Bill
By Leander Kahney
Microsoft's leafy corporate campus in Redmond,
Washington, is beginning to look like the streets of New York,
London and just about everywhere else: Wherever you go, white
headphones dangle from peoples' ears.
To the growing frustration and annoyance of
Microsoft's management, Apple Computer's iPod is wildly popular
among Microsoft's workers.
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"About 80 percent of Microsoft employees who
have a portable music player have an iPod," said one source, a
high-level manager who asked to remain anonymous. "It's pretty
The source estimated 80 percent of Microsoft
employees have a music player -- that translates to 16,000 iPod
users among the 25,000 who work at or near Microsoft's
corporate campus. "This irks the management team no end,"
said the source.
So popular is the iPod, executives are
increasingly sending out memos frowning on its use.
Of course, Microsoft's software is used by
dozens of competing music players from manufacturers like
Creative Technology, Rio and Sony. Its Windows Media Audio, or
WMA, format is supported by several online music stores,
including Napster, Musicmatch and Wal-Mart. Microsoft's
PlaysForSure program markets this choice as a boon for
Nonetheless, Apple's iPod commands 65 percent
of the portable player market, and its online iTunes Music Store
70 percent of online music sales,
according to Apple.
"These guys are really quite scared," said the
source of Microsoft's management. "It shows how their backs are
against the wall.... Even though it's Microsoft, no one is
interested in what we have to offer, even our own employees."
So concerned is management, owning an iPod at
Microsoft is beginning to become impolitic, the manager said.
Employees are hiding their iPods by swapping the telltale white
headphones for a less conspicuous pair.
"Some people are a bit concerned about being
traitors, not supporting the company," he said. "They're a bit
stealth about it."
How "stealth" varies from division to
division. At the company's Macintosh Business Unit, which
publishes a wide range of software for the Mac, owning an iPod
is almost de rigueur.
But at the Windows Digital Media Group, which
is charged with software for portable players and the WMA
format, using an iPod is not a good career move.
"In the media group they all smoke the company
dope on that one," the manager said.
Mary Jo Foley, editor of
said she had no knowledge of the iPod's popularity on
Microsoft's campus, but has noticed a lot of iPod chatter among
Microsoft's legions of bloggers.
"I have seen lots of Softies blog about it,"
she wrote in an e-mail.
Microsoftie Chris Anderson, for example, just
blogged about buying himself an iPod, three days after buying
his wife one.
"I couldn't resist anymore,"
he wrote. "The
industrial design on the iPod is absolutely amazing. The
usability of the device is light-years beyond anything else I've
Robert Scoble, who calls himself the
"Microsoft Geek Blogger" and is one of the company's most widely
read and vocal mouthpieces, sometimes appears obsessed with the
He recently penned an
open letter to Bill Gates about how to build an iPod-killer
(first thing: start a blog). "Even I want an iPod," he
The Microsoft manager said he's heard from
several executives who dutifully bought Microsoft-powered
players, tried them, failed to get them working, and returned
them in favor of an iPod. He went through the same experience,
He had no idea if Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer,
Microsoft's CEO, own iPods -- he's never seen what gadgets they
use. "I've never seen either of them with any device, but I only
see them in meetings," he said.
"There are frequent communications within the
company about why it's a bad choice," the manager said. "So many
people have chosen the iPod, executives feel they should send
out memos about it."
For example, an internal e-mail circular sent
to several senior managers in mid-December talked about iPod
shipments to Apple's nearby store in Bellevue.
The e-mail said: "FWIW, the gal at the
Bellevue Square Apple Store said that they are getting in two
shipments of 200 iPods every day to keep up with this week's
demand, and are nearly constantly selling out."
The note prompted a curt reply from Dave
Fester, general manager of the Windows Digital Media division,
who wrote the group: "I sure hope Microsoft employees are not
buying iPods. We have great alternatives. Check out http://experiencemore."
Fifteen minutes later, the manager responded:
"I don't know what I was thinking. I'm sure that Microsoft
employees are not buying iPods, or Macs or PlayStations."
In 2003, Fester stirred up
considerable controversy claiming Apple is locking in
consumers with proprietary file formats, despite Microsoft's
long history of using the same tactic.
As for hiding his own iPod use, the manager
said he flaunts his iPod, despite the constant comments -- and
occasional arguments -- it prompts.
"I don't really care if it pisses them off,"
he said. "I'll argue why they're doing it wrong. If you want me
to stop using it, give me a product that works and is as easy to
Neither Apple nor Microsoft responded to
requests for comment.