Microsoft, Forget AI. Privacy is More Central to Your Mission (Premium)

You don’t need a seat on Microsoft’s Senior Leadership team to know that the entire company was given explicit directions to market their products’ artificial intelligence (AI) prowess. The software giant doesn’t miss a chance to tout these capabilities at events and in blog posts and press releases.

On the surface, this focus makes sense: AI, especially to the scale and scope of Microsoft’s operations, is a unique advantage. There are only a very few companies---Google, maybe IBM---that can even hope to effectively compete with Microsoft in this arena. And other erstwhile competitors like Amazon, Apple, Samsung, and whatever smaller players have a long, painful, and expensive road ahead of them if they intend to become serious contenders. In this market, consolidation is guaranteed.

But AI has a major downside, too, a negative reputation. It’s what’s behind those weird non-coincidences that occur with online advertising, where invisible trackers work in the background across sites and services to aggressively push products the hive mind thinks you want. This creepiness is the reason so many people fear and don’t trust Google, in particular: Its bizarre combination of AI prowess and ethical lapses.

Microsoft does see itself as the anti-Google. And it promotes the ethical use of AI, especially to governments. But the problem here is perception: Yes, I do believe that Microsoft can be trusted, and the firm has a certain integrity that I find lacking in other companies, like Apple and Google, an ethical center that is absolutely missing from Amazon. And, yes, Microsoft has a great reputation with enterprises, in particular, and I’m sure those relationships have resulted in their own forms of institutional trust.

But trust is easily lost, and it can be quickly victimized in this era of fake news and science-averse decision making. Worse, the intersection of trust and marketing can be hard to navigate. And with AI in particular, even Microsoft is guilty of overstating how much AI is infused in its products: For example, it’s now claiming that spell-checking in Microsoft Word was an early form of AI so that it can establish that it has decades of experience in this field.

This is silly. Back in the day, Bill Gates would have simply ascribed up these capabilities to the vaguer phrase “magic of software,” and in doing so he would establish the same basic messaging, which is that Microsoft is a superior software maker. Hence, its offerings should be trusted.

Today, however, there is a marketing tack that I think makes for Microsoft. In fact, it’s working great for Apple, and it is an unassailable point no matter what you think about that firm’s recent issues selling its newest iPhones.

Microsoft should promote the privacy of its offerings above all else.

In doing so, Microsoft could be to software and services what Apple is to hardware devices: The world’s trusted provider for offerings that pro...

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