Microsoft chairman Bill Gates may have set a new record for the biggest public understatement. Speaking on the company’s performance in the cellphone market he says Microsoft “didn’t get out in the lead very early.”
The comments came in an interview for the CBS This Morning show in which he was asked to rate CEO Steve Ballmer’s performance since taking over day-to-day control of the company. While praising some of the company’s achievements (and dubbing Windows 8 “the key to the future” Gates said that Ballmer “and I are not satisfied that in terms of, you know, breakthrough things, that we are doing everything possible.”
Gates refused to be drawn on the specifics of what Microsoft did wrong in the mobile market, saying only that “We didn’t miss cellphones, but the way that we went about it didn’t allow us to get the leadership. So it’s clearly a mistake.”
Microsoft’s actual failings are well documented. The biggest mistake was the sheer lack of pace with new software, with Microsoft apparently failing to realize that the schedule of three or so years between new editions of desktop Windows didn’t cut it in smartphone time.
To put things into context, Microsoft released Windows Mobile 6 in February 2007, four months before the first iPhones went on sale and arguably kicked off the popular take-up of smartphones that could run third-party applications.
By the time Microsoft finally got round to a completely overhauled system for the smartphone age (Windows Phone 7), Apple was already on the iPhone 4 while Google’s Android system had just taken over as the most widely used smartphone operating system.
Microsoft also muddied the waters by making a half-hearted attempt to manufacture its own smartphones. The Kin didn’t actually run Windows Phone 7 and in fact didn’t even allow third-party apps. However, although the Kin handsets were cheap and looked particularly suitable for teens and young adults with an interest in social networking features, they were only available with expensive voice and data plans starting from $60 a month. They sold an estimated 10,000 units and Microsoft abandoned phone manufacturing altogether.