The Irony of Microsoft’s Lost Mobile Opportunity

Steve Wildstrom / August 30th, 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.

 

 

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Rene Stein

    Even with resistive touch screen, people enjoyed using Palm devices and they were very popular. People enjoyed using the Newton, I certainly did when I tried one for a few months. I don’t think many people actually ever enjoyed the Microsoft offerings. This is what I think Microsoft’s problem has been, they have not created many products and consumers have enjoyed using.

    Windows 1, 2, and 3 were usability disasters. Windows 95 was good by comparison to those travesties. They got better, XP was solid, but not a delight to use. Vista was a disaster, at the start. Windows 7 seemed to be the one that people finally liked. Then, Windows 8 was released, usability disaster. Why would you train your customers to use the ‘Start’ menu for 15 years, then yank it from them for no reason?

    Surface RT and Surface Pro have non-touch optimized Office software? What? Why?

    The original tablets were big and heavy convertibles. No compromise. Too big and heavy to be properly used as a tablet over long periods.

    Excel started out as Mac software and was good. Word, not so much. The Mac version of Word was a port of the Windows version for a long time, and was terrible. Then, it was moved over to the Mac Business Unit (an almost separate entity) and became good.

    Did you see what they were going to do with the xBox One? They backtracked a lot with that.

    Microsoft has consistently made poor products. Maybe not poor from a technical level, but poor from an end user standpoint. They didn’t sell products to end users, they sold them to IT departments and computer manufacturers. IT department purchasers liked the products. Computer manufacturers really had no choice.

    The ironic thing is that Windows Phone was one of the most highly regarded pieces of software from a design and usability standpoint and it is the one that has failed.

    • Alex Cumbers

      Great comment. MS have good technology and to make Windows work with the compatibility with 1000’s hardware combinations is remarkable. But they do not understand good U.I. and have poor taste. Apple is light years ahead still on that, and evolving the interface, rather than making massive changes. Desktop & Touch interfaces are very different and are unlikely to merge for quite some time, if at all.

      • steve_wildstrom

        It’s easy to underestimate how much of a design advantage Apple gets from its vertical integration and simple product lines. These make it possible for Apple to optimize its software for very specific hardware and to produce a superior user experience.

        Good taste and superb design sense help too.

    • In many cases, Microsoft has been ahead of its competition, and by far if I may say. The problem for Microsoft is they always have the idea or technology under development, but when they have tried to crystallize it in the market, its engineers and designers are so bad that they end up ruining what could have been an outstanding product. A clear example of this are tablets. How many years ago Bill Gates was pictured with a tablet in his hands? But the device was downright awful, and it was very heavy, and together with these drawbacks must be considered that, in fact, required a stylus to run. In short, it was an excellent idea resolved in the ugliest way possible.

      This is where Apple has beaten the whole world. Apple returned to the idea of the tablet and turned it into something simple, beautiful and tactile, which not only strengthened its concepts about multi-touch screens, but it ended up making them indispensable in any electronic device and thus assured the success of the iPhone and the iPad. In short, an excellent idea resolved in the best way possible, with much industrial design and the substantial improvement of the technology developed by Microsoft.

      That is also Steve Ballmer’s fault, because he could never understand that good concepts and good ideas require the best people to make them happen. His teams of engineers and designers are among the worst, but Ballmer never saw that. The results are obvious.

  • Peter Buckton

    …Perhaps it realized deep down that really great mobile devices would ultimately threaten the desktop Windows franchise they cared much more about.

    I don’t think there is any “perhaps” about it.
    They have sacrificed everything on the altar of Windows.

    • Rene Stein

      I think that there was a lot of delusional thinking at Microsoft. I just finished watching a video of Bill Gates introducing the original Surface table. He made the quip that they were mostly successful with putting a computer on every desk (true) and then said that maybe one day they would be successful and turning every desk into a computer. I don’t know what good stuff he was on at that point. Maybe he had read Ender’s Game too many times, and not Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy enough.

  • Naofumi

    I think you nailed it in that you mention the variety of screen sizes and input methods that Windows Mobile had to support. Wide device support is central to Microsoft’s business model so they couldn’t drop that, but that killed their chances in mobile. Typical innovator’s dilemma. Android had it easy because Apple had already made the hard choices for them and they had the insider info.

    • Anders CT

      That is not really a very good explanation. From before there even was an iPhone Android has had built in support for trackpads, keyboards, mouse, trackballs, direction-pads, styluses, trackballs, joy-sticks, and many screen sizes and ratios. How can that be a disadvantage for Windows Mobile, when it has always been (and still is) a big advantage for Android?

      I think a better explanation is that the resistive touchscreen technology that predated the iPhone. Before the iPhone touchscreens was essentially a big and fairly unresponsive button. There wasn’t a lot of the sliding, dragging, rotating,pinching and scrolling that we see now, and there wasn’t any good touch-keyboards. The iPhone was the first device where the touch-interface was so good, that you could live without hardware buttons.

      And there was no insider info to be had. Anyone who saw the lines of people circling Apple stores when the iPhone was launched should have known, that Apple has made something fundamentally good. It took Microsoft 4 years to realise this, while the Android group appears to have understood this in 4 hours, along with every technology and gadget-freak out there.

      Microsoft could have been where Android is today, if they had just overhauled and improved Windows Mobiles user interface. The innards of Windows Mobile was and is a pretty good OS.

      • steve_wildstrom

        The first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 in the U.S., the HTC Dream elsewhere, was a disaster. It had a capacitive touchscreen, a slide out keyboard, even a D-pad that no one used. It was trying to compete with Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and the iPhone all at once.

        But the user interface was optimized for touch (and more so in successive versions of Android.) The standard Android form factor quickly became an iPhone like simple slab; keyboard models persist, but they have a minuscule market share. For all the bells and whistles it supported, Android realized from the beginning the difference that capacitive screen made; Microsoft ignored this for three long, critical years.

        In the contrasting case of Windows Mobile, the UI itself was badly compromised to support alternative entry styles. And the screen issue wasn’t just multiple screen sizes but multiple, radically different, aspect ratios.

      • peter

        “Microsoft could have been where Android is today…”

        True, but only if they had been able to get the user interface right, avoid bloat and leave it largely Windows incompatible, and by charging next to nothing for it.

        Microsoft the company that exists today is not good at any of those things. Let’s face it, their software has a big memory/power footprint and they have not had to compete on interface quality in the past. Therefore I have no confidence whatsoever that their next CEO will make them competitive in the mobile space.

  • peter

    Taking about Andy Grove; Intel also seems to have missed out on mobile so far, they have yet to launch a CPU that can threaten their desktop/laptop offerings, they turned down Apple who needed an iPhone CPU, and Otellini retired early.

    Where is that Intel ARM processor (or credible in-house equivalent)? We know that technically they can make one, but can they price it sensibly? If they don’t eat their own lunch, somebody else will.

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