Microsoft's Lost Opportunity

You may be hearing about Intel’s missed opportunity to put their chip inside the iPhone. But what about Microsoft’s lost opportunity?

It seems like quite a while ago, but it hasn’t been that long. Microsoft was on top of the world. They were quickly approaching their goal of a computer on every desk and in every home — and were pushing boldly outward, finding a welcome spot in briefcases and backpacks. Then they decided to “go smaller”.

Windows CE

Some of you may recall Windows CE, Microsoft’s “compact environment” (though they claim that’s not what “CE” stood for. Microsoft pushed technology smaller and deployed the “Handheld PC”. This diminutive computer was a clamshell that held a tiny physical keyboard on one side and a grayscale screen on the other. The whole package could fit in your suit pocket, but it was still too big. Microsoft reacted by shrinking the package, losing the hinge and the keyboard, and the “Palm Sized PC” was born.  Apparently Palm didn’t like that, so Microsoft rebranded their new “personal digital assistant” as the Pocket PC. I went through my fair share of the latter.

Shortly thereafter they (or their OEMs) figured out how to squeeze a cell phone inside this PDA and Microsoft entered the era of the “smartphone”. Eventually their devices were rebranded as “Windows Mobile”.

Between Microsoft and Palm, there weren’t many other players on the field. They knew it, and they stagnated. Rather than continuing to push and innovate, Microsoft sat back and let their brilliant innovation whither on the vine.

Along Came Apple

Apple released the iPod Touch and iPhone — and changed the game forever. They changed the rules. They innovated. They shed the “computer” metaphor and replaced it with a touch-friendly interface. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer laughed it off. He literally laughed at the iPhone.

“Five hundred dollars? Fully subsidized? With a plan? (..). That is the most expensive phone in the world, and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine. (…)”

People who had already invested their money and themselves into Windows Mobile generally stayed with Microsoft, hoping to weather the storm. Then a year passed. And another. Microsoft was finally starting to see the folly of resting on their laurels and was trying to respond. Unfortunately, they were still very stylus-centric and just didn’t seem to “get” the fact that people wanted to use their fingers to control their smartphones — either that or it was just too difficult to adapt the metaphor.

Along Came Android

One other item of note: there’s a general feeling of “us versus them” when it comes to the rivalry between Windows and Mac users. That rivalry extends into the mobile space as well. Many held off going to iOS because of some animosity or dislike of Apple in general. When Google announced Android, those who wanted something more like iOS (without having to switch to Apple) had an alternative.

Some were hesitant. I didn’t get my first Android for almost a year after it hit the market. In my defense, the T-Mobile G1 was initially only offered in areas where T-Mobile had their 3G network “sufficiently built-out”. My neck of the woods didn’t make the cut. Months later, after realizing they’d created something of a black-market for the device, T-Mobile “allowed” anyone to upgrade to their “Android Plan” and pick up the G1. I jumped at the opportunity, even though I was stuck with EDGE for a while.

I wasn’t alone. Many other ex-Windows-Mobilers made the switch from Microsoft to Android. Others stayed behind while folks like HTC tried to breathe new life into the platform. Eventually Microsoft killed off Windows Mobile in favor of “something new” that they were building from the “ground up”.

Unfortunately it was too late. Those who wanted to stick around had just been given the boot by Microsoft themselves. They were forced out of their platform-of-choice, and had to pick someone else.

Microsoft’s Lost Opportunity

Recent news is showing that Microsoft has finally regained the #3 position in the mobile game. Unfortunately those numbers are from before the BlackBerry rebranding and new devices too place, so Microsoft may lose the title next quarter.

That’s not to say Windows Phone isn’t great, or that it doesn’t have potential. It’s just an uphill battle that they are going to have to keep fighting thanks to Microsoft’s lost opportunity.

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