A new attack on software giant Microsoft by an English-language Chinese broadcaster looks like a relatively minor affair and would probably not even qualify as news in most Western markets. But this is China, where all media are owned by the state and often support each other by speaking with a single voice. That means this new criticism by China National Radio could be just the opening shot against the world’s largest software maker, similar to an ambush faced by rival Apple just weeks ago. If this were anywhere else but China, the latest criticism by China National Radio about Microsoft’s newly launched Surface Pro tablet PC would seem largely inconsequential. The broadcaster reported on its website that there was a “flaw” in the after-sales policy for the Surface Pro, which Microsoft launched in China earlier this month.
The report sounds potentially worrisome until one reads further into the story and discovers that the “flaw” looks rather minor. The report says Microsoft’s warranty for the product includes 1 year of free after-service maintenance for both parts and the overall computers. But China National Radio says that policy goes against Chinese regulations that state the warranty should cover at least 2 years for parts, and 1 year for the entire computer.
Readers will recall that Apple recently was the subject of a similar media attack from CCTV, China’s main TV broadcaster, which is often considered a mouthpiece of the Communist Party. That attack saw CCTV criticize Apple for what I thought was a relatively minor offense, which also involved cheating consumers out of some of their allotted warranty period. Of course, people who followed the story will know that I misread the situation, and that other major state-run media quickly followed CCTV’s lead and also criticized Apple for looking down on Chinese consumers.
The anti-Apple storm culminated with a series of highly critical editorials in People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, which blasted Apple for its arrogance. Apple finally bowed to the pressure and issued an unusual apology with promises to change its ways, bringing the media storm to an end almost instantly. Views differ on how much Apple’s image suffered, since many cynical Chinese consumers noted that their own domestic companies are guiltier of much worse service.
So the question becomes: What’s likely to happen as a result of this new criticism towards Microsoft, and should the company be worried. If Microsoft is smart, it will quickly address this so-called “flaw” and issue a low-key apology with promises to fix the problem. China National Radio is a major central media outlet, but the fact that it’s a radio broadcaster means its influence is relatively smaller than CCTV or the People’s Daily.
I suspect that China National Radio was probably trying to copy the early CCTV report with its Microsoft criticism, and that the attack doesn’t really represent any centralized effort to tarnish Microsoft’s image in China. I’m surprised that Chinese media haven’t criticized Microsoft yet for the unrelated fact that it launched a special, some might say inferior, edition of the Surface Pro for the China market. This Chinese edition of the Surface Pro only comes with the standard Windows 8 OS, rather than the Professional Windows 8 OS offered in other markets. If Apple had committed such a “transgression,” it almost certainly would have been criticized for trying to sell an inferior product to Chinese consumers.
Having said all that, I’m going to take a risk again and say that this latest media attack on Microsoft seems like an isolated and relatively minor incident that should pass quickly with little or no impact on the company. But then again, I made a similar prediction before, which turned out to be painfully incorrect.
Doug Young lives in Shanghai and writes opinion pieces about tech investment in China for Techonomy and at www.youngchinabiz.com. He is the author of a new book about the media in China, The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.