The Irony of Microsoft’s Lost Mobile Opportunity

on August 30, 2013

The dozens of commentaries on Steve Ballmer’s impending departure nearly all condemn him for Microsoft’s failure in mobile computing during his tenure. It’s certainly true that Microsoft was run over by an iPhone-iPad-Android train in the last few years, but the basic problem was not that the company failed to understand the importance of mobile.

As John Gruber writes at Daring Fireball:

Look no further than mobile. Microsoft correctly saw that mobile was important to the industry. They saw this early — “Pocket PC” devices first appeared in 2000, and by 2003 they had “Windows Mobile”. They blew it. They had a market lead at some point, but during a time when the handheld market was tiny. The technology wasn’t there yet to make mobile computing desirable to the mass market. By the time the technology was there, when Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, Microsoft was not only caught flatfooted, but Ballmer himself seemed incapable of recognizing just how remarkable the iPhone was.

What Microsoft really missed was the importance of touch interfaces. And that is particularly ironic because Microsoft was promoting touch-based Tablet PCs from 2003 on. The problem, as usual, was a combination of a slavish dedication to the design of Windows and the desire to give OEM partners the widest possible choice in form factors.

The Pocket PC user interface was a miniature Windows desktop. Back then, there were no capacitive multitouch screens and the devices, like the Palms that were their major competitors, required use of a stylus. Over time, the UI evolved to become less Windows-like–the screenshot above shows a version from about the time the iPhone was introduced–but they always relied on interface elements that were too small to touch reliably with a finger.

Furthermore, Microsoft allowed OEMs a great freedom in configurations. Windows Mobile devices could have a considerable variety of screen sizes and they could be designed with or without touch screens and with or without physical keyboards. The support for non-touchscreen devices sharing the same basic interface guaranteed that Windows Mobile, like desktop Windows prior to Windows 8 in its Metro mode,  would remain basically a keyboard-driven UI with touch features.

The arrival of the iPhone in 2007 convinced a skeptical world that a touch-only device could be not only practical but delightful. Microsoft, probably because it saw BlackBerry as its real competition, paid no attention. As late as the fall of 2009, contemporary with the iPhone 3GS, Microsoft released a final version of the Windows Mobile software, which still lacked support for multitouch displays. Microsoft did not release a keyboardless, multitouch phone until Windows 7 in late 2010, by which time it was fighting not only Apple but Android.

Microsoft gave every indication of realizing the importance of mobile, in fact, long before Apple. But what it couldn’t do was get mobile right. Perhaps it realized deep down that really great mobile devices would ultimately threaten the desktop Windows franchise they cared much more about. But as Andy Grove always warned, if you won’t cannibalize your own products, some else will.