I attended the Windows 7 launch on the 22nd October in Sydney (Apologies for the average quality of the above photo, I was up the back of the auditorium taking photos on my mobile) and the one thing that struck me (other than the relief Microsoft employees had they weren’t promoting Vista anymore) was the belief that the audience had in Windows 7 from first hand experience, with approximately 2/3 of the audience having already used the OS prior to launch, either participating in the public beta program or running the release candidate of Windows 7 that was made available prior to launch to iron out the last few bugs in the wild before the RTM version went to the manufacturers.
Obviously the audience at the launch event is one that skews heavily towards ‘geek’ so the 2/3 figure isn’t something that would carry over to the general population. However it is an important group of influencers who are already acting as evangelists for the product before it has been launched to the general public. For the most part the beta releases of Windows 7 were very nearly already polished enough to be released as the final version, so the public beta served Microsoft more as a marketing exercise than an engineering one.
Microsoft managed to convince this key group of influencers that they could safely put their online social capital behind the product by letting the influencers get hands on with Windows 7 throughout the beta program. By creating an army of influencers who evangelise Windows 7, this acts to overcome the distrust of marketing pitches coming from companies trying to sell us a product.
This effect was dramatic, where normally with a major OS release, most consumers would take a wait and see approach, holding off to the next service pack before upgrading. With this army of influencers Microsoft was able to achieve a 234% increase in sales for Windows 7 above that of Windows Vista in the first weeks of the products release.
While Microsoft couldn’t have been created an army of Windows 7 evangelists without it being a good product. The public beta program was instrumental in creating positive word of mouth for the product in the influencers likely to sway consumers choices. Many companies would shy away from letting the public use a non-final version of their software, for this I believe Microsoft needs to be commended, not just for using the public beta to create the most polished version of their OS yet, but leveraging the public beta as a marketing tool to build critical momentum prior to the Windows 7 launch.