updated 11:30 am EDT, Sun April 3, 2011
Microsoft mobile failure pinned on Windows pride
An investigation into Microsoft's high-profile mobile failures has blamed much of the company's poor market share on an endemic culture that resists anything not part of Windows. CEO Steve Ballmer is said to be over-proud and overprotective of the Windows legacy he inherited from Bill Gates. The company's Windows and Office teams often get first say over anything, Forbes was told, and were likened earlier by James Whittaker to a Mafia that killed Courier, Kin, or any project that would threaten Windows' internal hegemony.
"[You have to] deal with the made men who run the relevant cartel," he said. "And if they don't like you or your idea, your innovation goes nowhere."
Former Microsoft programmer Rebecca Norlander helped largely confirm suspicions that Ballmer personally axed the Courier. The dual-screen tablet was regarded by its team as a "breakout product," but when the then leader of the Entertainment and Devices group Robbie Bach presented it to Ballmer, the CEO not only denied extra funding but killed the project outright since it threatened to outdo Windows. Any of the developments would be rolled into Windows 8, due in late 2012, or even Windows 9, which on Microsoft's usual three-year cycle might not ship until 2015.
It was implied, though not directly stated, that Ballmer was lying when he said Bach's exit from the company wasn't related to the Courier's death.
Much of the failure of the Kin phone line was already known and blamed on the Windows Mobile team's protectionism, where its head Andy Lees couldn't accept another mobile platform not based on Windows underpinnings. Senior software engineer Cid Halloway added new color by confirming beliefs that Microsoft's buyout of Danger to work on the Kin failed because it saw the team purely as an engineering hire and didn't actually learn any design lessons.
Some of the established Microsoft guard had open contempt for Danger and assumed it knew better how to handle mobile devices. "A few people openly said to us, 'We think you got lucky with Sidekick, so sit down, stop talking, and do what we hired you to do,'" Halloway said.
Until recently, Ballmer hasn't had to take non-Windows businesses seriously because of the sheer profitability of the core software. It earned over $5 billion in profit in the fall, owed primarily to Windows and Office. Most of the concern now centers both on getting Microsoft shares out of their decade-long rut as well as in making sure Microsoft still maintains relevance as computing shifts to mobile. Windows Phone 7 hasn't yet offset users abandoning Windows Mobile but has helped establish some credibility by introducing a modern, multi-touch OS that should gain significantly more market share through Nokia.
Signs nonetheless still exist that Microsoft is still protective of its traditional PC business. Chief research officer Craig Mundie just this past week waffled on tablets, saying he wasn't sure if they would last even after Apple shipped 14.8 million iPads last year and had a breakthrough iPad 2 introduction. His comments may partly be stalling tactics, however, as Windows 8 is expected to have a tablet-optimized UI with ARM processor support and may just not be ready in time for Microsoft to shift attention away from conventional computers.