It’s hard watching Microsoft’s former CEOs prostrate themselves and apologize for their previous misdeeds. Especially when they get it wrong.
It happened before with Steve Ballmer, who apologized in recent years—incorrectly—for being “wrong” about the iPhone when it was first released. Ballmer wasn’t wrong. His assertions about the iPhone—that it was too expensive and did not appeal to business customers—were so on the nose that Apple dropped the price of the flailing device by an incredible $200 just two months after it launched and then trumpeted its successor’s support of Exchange/EAS and other enterprise features a year later.
Ballmer also apologized for not following up Windows with a “second act” that he says could have been turning Microsoft into a “world-class hardware company.” Again, he was wrong to do so. Software wasn’t just Microsoft’s core area of expertise—its only truly successful hardware product at the time was a mouse—but more to the point, Microsoft’s real success was in partnering with others, including and perhaps especially hardware makers.
What Ballmer was really responding to in both of these public displays of wrong-headed self-inspection was what had happened in the wake of Microsoft’s back-to-back antitrust defeats. It’s a period of time that many now call Microsoft’s “lost decade.” When rivals like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook were able to rise unimpeded by a software colossus that had never before been defeated in any material way. These firms could never have succeeded to the level they did had they faced an unfettered, uninhibited Microsoft.
And now Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder and first CEO, is doing it too.
In a recent interview, Gates was asked about his biggest mistake. And he replied, essentially, that Windows Phone was his biggest mistake, that he/Microsoft should have established its mobile platform as the dominant challenger to the iPhone, and not Google with Android.
“Platforms … are winner-take-all markets,” he said. “So, the greatest mistake ever is whatever mismanagement I engaged in that caused Microsoft not to be what Android is. That is, Android is the standard phone platform, non-Apple phone platform. That was a natural thing for Microsoft to win. And it really is winner take all. If you’re there with half as many apps, or 90 percent as many apps, you’re on your way to complete doom. There’s room for exactly one non-Apple operating system.”
Just to get this out of the way, Microsoft’s defeat in mobile had almost nothing to do with Windows Phone. Those seeds were sown many years earlier.
As denoted by its original name, Windows Phone 7, that product was just an evolution of (more than) several revisions to a mobile platform that had its root in Windows CE in the mid-1990s. Windows CE originally targeted miniature PC-like devices called Handheld PCs, or HPCs. But it was adapted to power a series of PDAs—Palm-sized PCs, Pocket PC, and so on—to rival Palm. And then it moved into smartphones in 2002—five years before the iPhone—with Smartphone 2002 and then Windows Mobile 2003, 5, and 6.x. These products competed with RIM (Blackberry), Nokia, and other smartphone platform makers of the day.
The iPhone was released in 2007 and, as we know, it changed everything.
Google had purchased a tiny firm called Android and was working to release a smartphone platform that was very similar to competing platforms and would ship on devices that were very similar to those using Blackberry, Nokia, or Windows Mobile. But it recast Android as an iPhone OS knockoff, just as Samsung and other hardware makers raced to copy the iPhone’s hardware design.
Microsoft’s response to the iPhone was slower than Google’s, for sure. After stumbling a bit with a final Windows Mobile 6.5 release that added a touch-based home screen and little else to the system’s aging infrastructure—a classic “lipstick on a pig” moment—it finally killed off Windows Mobile 7 while in development and started over with Windows Phone 7.
The product it created was hastily-cobbled together and would need to be refined over several iterations. But the ideas were pure: Rather than just copy the iPhone, as Google did, Microsoft rethought everything and tried to create a platform that wasn’t just different, but was better. History shows us that this effort failed, and it didn’t help that Microsoft was forced to change the underlying platform and the technologies that developers used to write apps three times. But it failed in part because it was so late to the party. And not because Android was free: Google charges for Android just like Microsoft did for Windows Phone.
So, that’s a nice story. And it seems to bolster Gates’ opinion that Windows Phone was his biggest mistake. After all, Android today runs roughshod over the industry and is installed on over 80 percent of all smartphones shipped worldwide. This level of success is analogous to what Windows achieved on PCs. It all makes sense, right?
No, it doesn’t. All this episode really proves is how small-minded the renowned businessman, technologist, and philanthropist Bill Gates can be.
The big dig against Bill Gates—and it is an accurate complaint—is that he and the company he created never innovated in any meaningful way. Instead, Gates and Microsoft took the best ideas of others—the GUI, countless productivity applications, programming languages and environments, pen computing, mobile computing, whatever—and then just ruthlessly destroyed those who innovated while powering their way to the top. Gates and Microsoft stole, destroyed, and iterated. There are countless examples.
The second big complaint against Gates and the company he created, and this is a problem you will all recognize to this day, is that he was never a great finisher. Most of what Gates and Microsoft shipped was never really perfect or fine-tuned. There was just a “ship it” mentality, not a “get it right” mentality. From the first version of Windows to Windows 10 today, almost 35 years later, this has been a constant.
With both of those things in mind, let’s revisit what Gates just said.
“Android is the standard phone platform, non-Apple phone platform. That was a natural thing for Microsoft to win. And it really is winner take all. If you’re there with half as many apps, or 90 percent as many apps, you’re on your way to complete doom. There’s room for exactly one non-Apple operating system.”
In other words, in Gates’s view, what should have happened is that another company (Apple) innovated the smartphone market, because it’s always some other company that innovates. And then Microsoft, the great destroyer, should have come along, stolen those ideas, destroyed that innovator, and then iterated on top of that stolen work. You know, as it did with Windows back in the day.
I’m sorry, but that is just … sad.
Gates never innovated, and it doesn’t seem to bother him that Microsoft didn’t and couldn’t create the modern smartphone market. He also never created anything other than a culture, which persists in parts of Microsoft to this day, of not innovating and not getting things right the first time. And then not fixing the problems.
Let’s compare this to Apple. Under Steve Jobs, Apple was known as a great innovator, but the reality is that very little of Apple’s innovations and product releases represented individual new ideas. Apple, like Microsoft, built on what came before. But the difference between the companies, their cultures, and the personalities—Jobs, Gates—with which they are most closely associated, couldn’t be starker. Where Gates stole, destroyed, and then released half-assed products, Jobs stole, fine-tuned, waited until everything was just right, and then released full-realized products. (Apple today is a little more complicated, and a little more like Microsoft. But that’s another story.) Apple is often criticized for moving slowly. But come on. When it ships, it gets it right.
The problem with Microsoft from the perspective of this Microsoft follower is that the company’s early history is tainted. And it’s tainted because of Bill Gates and his lack of ethics and empathy, his inability to innovate, and the culture he infused into the company he created. Microsoft today is trying to shake all that off. But it came to power because Gates was a ruthless businessman, not because it had the best technology. And when his inability to be ruthless was stripped away from him because of the antitrust issues his business practices created, Microsoft stumbled, lost a decade, and its competitors surged.
And that, folks, is Bill Gates’ biggest mistake.