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Two clues Microsoft is losing its way

Company has launched another "Get the Facts" advertising campaign and is blocking users from downgrading to XP--two signs that the company is losing its way in the face of real competition.

Steve Ballmer needs to brush up on Roman history. Otherwise he seems doomed to repeat it, as two recent Microsoft campaigns suggest.

Microsoft has been dominant for so long that it has grown soft. As Edward Gibbon wrote in his exceptional "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," it is not outside enemies that crushed Rome so much as its own effete greatness:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

Two new Microsoft directives suggest that the writing is on the wall for the once-great company. And this isn't even to mention Microsoft's tactics to squash Linux's growth in the Netbook market.

First, Microsoft has kicked off a "Get the Facts" browser campaign that is long on hyperbole and short on facts. Reading Microsoft's browser comparison chart, one would think that using Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome is a fast track to leprosy: IE apparently dominates in security, privacy, ease of use, healing the sick, and causing the lame to walk.

Speaking of "lame," IBM's Savio Rodrigues warns us to not be fooled by comparison tables that dramatically favor one product over others. Internet Explorer has gotten better over the years (It only had one way to go), but Microsoft's claims aren't even credible when it skews the results so dramatically in its favor.

Mozilla's own marketing for Firefox is very, very different.

Not content to let false advertising do the trick, Microsoft has also resorted to paying people to use its browser and calling users "idiots" if they opted to try something else. As TechCrunch reports, Microsoft has backed down from the ad hominem attacks, but the company is starting to look desperate.

Microsoft customers seem to be pining for the good ol' Windows days.

(In need of charity itself, Microsoft is contributing to charities for every download of IE8. Awww....)

As if this browser desperation weren't enough, Microsoft has kicked off a second initiative that reveals just how unloved its "innovation" has become. Microsoft has confirmed its 18-month Windows 7 to XP downgrade policy.

There are very good reasons for software vendors to prod customers into staying current with software releases, but it is amazing just how hard Microsoft has had to work to convince Windows customers to leave XP. Apple and Linux customers seem to upgrade to their latest and greatest operating systems, while Microsoft customers seem to be pining for the good ol' Windows days.

It's one thing to have an upgrade policy. Having to articulate a downgrade policy is a signal of Microsoft defeat, not victory.

Gibbon wrote that "instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long." I feel the same way about Microsoft. It has done so much for the software industry--some very negative, much very positive--but it seems to have lost the plot. It is telling when the company's best product in years is the XBox, a hardware platform, as Bob Rosenberg noted to me over email.

Microsoft is a victim of its own desktop success, a fact that Google is using against it. Unless Microsoft can break out of its downward spiral of negative advertising born of stifled innovation in its products, it will fall. Sort of like Rome. Because of immoderate greatness.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.