It’s been more than a few years since Bill Gates turned over the reigns of Microsoft half-a-decade ago, but he still has quite a bit of control in the company as Chairman of the Board. During his early years with the company, he had a very lofty goal: a computer on every desk and in every home. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will argue that we have seen that objective achieved.
Computers, whether they are servers, desktops, workstations, or even traditional laptops, are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Gates saw that coming as well and started rolling out “Handheld PCs” and “Palm Sized PCs” — the latter would eventually include cellular radios and telephone capabilities, and went by the name of Windows Mobile.
For quite a while Windows Mobile devices were the only player in the game. Palm was around, but they didn’t do much with telephony. Apple had their Newton, but again, it wasn’t a phone. It wasn’t until BlackBerry surfaced that Microsoft started seeing competition in the market that they had all but created.
As time passed, Apple innovated and made smartphones that were easy enough for the masses to use. Both Microsoft and BlackBerry (then called RIM) were quickly relegated to second-class platforms. Microsoft kept trying to innovate with new UIs on their Windows Mobile phones, but the writing was on the wall: Windows Mobile was too limited to be a real competitor and decided to “reinvent” their product line.
How does Bill Gates, the man who started Microsoft, feel about all this? Is he happy with the directions his company took in the mobile market?
In an interview with CBS This Morning’s Charlie Rose, Gates candidly admitted that he wasn’t happy with Microsoft’s performance in the mobile market, he even said that Microsoft’s smartphone strategy was “a mistake”.
Or did he?
Many of the tech sites are running headlines like “Gates Says Windows Phone a Mistake” and “Bill Gates Admits Early Mobile Strategy Was ‘Mistake'”. But did he really say that?
“We didn’t miss cell phones,” Gates said. “But the way that we went about it didn’t allow us to get the leadership, so it’s clearly a mistake.”
Was he saying that Windows Phone itself was a mistake? No, rather, Gates was simply admitting that his company didn’t “get out in the lead very early” on cell phones — which isn’t entirely accurate either.
As we mentioned earlier, Microsoft beat almost everyone to market with what we’d call a modern smartphone. It even had apps that could be installed across phones made by various manufacturers and on different carriers. It had an eBook reader, a web browser, and email client and calendar that could sync with your provider. Their only problem? Microsoft’s offerings were computers first and phones second at a time when people wanted phones first.
Have the tables turned?
Today, however, things are a bit different. People want smartphones and tables that get email, sync their calendar, let them voice and video chat, take beautiful pictures, keep up-to-date with what’s happening in their social circles, and run apps. Ironically, to many, telephone features are second to everything else.
Have we gotten back to the point where our phones don’t need to be phones anymore? No. Regardless of what form our personal electronics take they still need to enable inter-personal communication.
Was Windows Phone a “mistake”? No. It was a necessary paradigm shift to keep Microsoft relevant in an increasingly competitive mobile market.
Expanding on Microsoft’s earlier business statement, “a computer on every desk and in every home”, could Microsoft have stayed on top with their mobile OS if that statement had read “a computer on every desk, in every home, and a smartphone in every pocket”? I’d like to think so. We just didn’t know what “smartphones” were supposed to be back them.
So for those of you who think Microsoft missed the mobile game, with all due respect, you’d be wrong. Microsoft all but invented the game, they just weren’t quite creative enough to stay ahead of their competition. Windows Phone could change all that — in time.