A wasted decade on Windows Mobile threatens Microsoft’s relevance in the future of computing.

5 Ways Steve Ballmer Can Save Microsoft’s Mobile Bacon

It appears that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has finally woken up and realized that Microsoft’s laughable mobile position is more than a product failure but a potential loss of relevance in the computing world of the future, where desktop PCs are like TVs and the real action is in mobile devices of all stripes.

This week, the heads of Microsoft’s mobile and entertainment (Windows Mobile, Zune, and Xbox) division announced their pending departures. It’s not a moment too soon, given the widespread doubts that the long-sagging division’s mobile and music fortunes would revive under the status quo. (The Xbox is doing fine.) Unfortunately, Ballmer says the departures had nothing to do with Microsoft’s slide into mobile irrelevance and that business will continue as usual. That’s suicidal.

With Apple’s huge lead in mobile with the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad; Google’s Android surge in smartphones and perhaps soon in slate-style tablets; and Research in Motion’s seeming lock on messaging devices, people might wonder why Microsoft doesn’t cut its losses and shift more emphasis to the company’s cloud strategy, which Microsoft’s execs hope will be its next-generation platform dominator à la Windows.

Ballmer should know why: Because mobile devices are where the client figure is, and a Microsoft without a strong mobile position means Microsoft loses any hope of owning the emerging technology ecosystem. At worst, Google would own it; at best, it would be a combination of Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

Microsoft has wasted a decade — it’s been that long since Windows Mobile (née CE) did anything that mattered to customers — with meaningless updates on an operating system that showed signs of innovation in 2000 but quickly became a confused mess of desktop wannabe functions by 2004. Complacency clearly set in as Palm frittered its future on endless reorganizations and RIM stayed happily in the mud of messaging. Then the iPhone showed up in 2007 and changed the mobile world. Google saw it and after a rough start started to deliver serious alternative. Both now outsell the establishment mobile OS that Windows Mobile had meant to be.

Steve, what did your company do? It wasted several years on the hapless Windows 6.5 and the moronic Kin — talk about throwing good money after bad. Now you have to turn around the mobile gap, and fast. Here’s what you need to do — and you have only the rest of this year to do it.

1. Kill the Crap (And do the Rest Right, or Not at All)

Microsoft produces a lot of mediocre software that it slowly fixes over a half-dozen or more iterations — adding more crap along the way. I’ve never understood this business strategy, but it worked for Windows, so it’s now accepted at Redmond. Practically every product from Office to Dynamics is developed this way.

For Windows Mobile, the crap caught up to it, smothering the operating system in a pile of excrement that as of Windows Mobile 6.5 could not longer be disguised for what it was. The new Kin mobile platform is also full of crap, lacing some interesting ideas around social networking on a badly designed user interface running on crappy hardware. It’s Windows Mobile all over again.

The successor to Windows Mobile — Windows Phone 7 — can’t contain crap. It needs to be a good OS, with a UI that works at all levels. The operating system needs to be elegant, simple, intentional, and consistent — something Microsoft has never been good at.

Instead, Steve, your company’s engineers confuse elegance with decoration, simplicity with obscurity, intentionality with brutishness, and consistency with — well, they don’t know that word. If you provide three ways to do the same thing, clutter up the screen with menus and dialog boxes and radio buttons, badger users with “helpful” alerts and confirmations, rely on multifinger keyboard shortcuts, and change navigation techniques across apps, you’re dead.

Everyone cites Apple as the master of this game, but I don’t believe for a minute that only Apple’s designers can produce such quality. Apple is a standout, but it doesn’t have a lock on good design. Amazon.com, Acer, Renault, and Nike are some top-of-mind examples.

Ironically, Microsoft has occasionally shown itself capable of design excellence: The original Excel was the first application to show that a graphical UI wasn’t just for pretty pictures, and its success is what I believe made Windows possible. Before that, the original Word was a very well-designed application in a sea of ungainly competitors back in the DOS era.

The bottom line: If you can’t do something at a level of excellence, pull it. Add it later, when it’s truly ready, as a free update. Get out of the crapware and shovelware business — you won’t believe the kind of loyalty you’ll get if you deliver quality products without compromises. (Just ask Apple.) I’m not suggesting everything be perfect — often, there’s no such thing — but customers can spot half-assed and rushed a mile away, and you already are too well known for those.

Your new mobile OS needs to run on hardware that oozes quality, fit and finish, and confident capability. You don’t need to clone the iPhone to get that; the HTC Droid Incredible is another example, as are the top-end PCs and laptops from Acer, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell. Don’t add a ton of perpherals and ports; instead, provide just one or two MicroUSB ports, the fewest buttons needed (without making any one button do unrelated things), a really good camera for still photography and videoconferencing (and remember it’s not the megapixels that matter but the CCD quality, despite what the Gizmoids say), an amazing screen with excellent multitouch sensing, a memory card slot, flexible radios (CDMA and GSM 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth not limited to headsets and keyboards, and maybe WiMax), and great audio in/out. A distinctive look that isn’t distracing would be icing on that cake.

Furthermore, you should allow only two models: one with a physical keyboard, and one without. Memory and maybe a couple other noncritical features can vary within each model line, but don’t create confusion. You don’t need 15 different Windows Phone 7 devices of varying quality. You’ve already been burned going down that road. If you can’t bring yourself to having just two models (and thus picking only HTC or Samsung as your hardware partner), enforce very tough requirements on the permissible variability. And don’t let HTC add its own UI overlay; like Windows Mobile before it, Android needed the Sense UI to be usable, which, in essence, means they screwed up the OS. If you don’t need it, you’ve just permitted an inconsistency in your platform’s core.

Along these lines, don’t confuse listening to the customer with delivering what you heard the customers say. Apple succeeds because Steve Jobs and the company’s other key leaders have a strong vision, and they deliver it time and time again. Despite their outward arrogance, they do listen to customers, but make their own decisions. That results in cohesive products that more often than not move the ball forward. After all, it is a truism in market research that customers don’t know what new features they want, just the ones they know they don’t have. You have to invent the future the customers didn’t know they wanted until you showed it to them.

Microsoft makes a lot of noise about listening to its customers, but that often leads to muddled products like Vista, whose aspirations of “everything but the kitchen sink OS” couldn’t be put together despite the years of efforts and $6 billion or so of investment. Instead, try out novel concepts with users and see how they react; that’s more likely to result in positive innovation and identify areas of confusion than trying to please or accommodate everything you hear.

2. Get the Basics Right

The underlying capabilities in your new mobile platform must be what’s needed. Don’t do the usual Microsoft thing and skimp. Apple got away with inferior business capabilities around security and manageability in its early iPhones and only in the last year has made serious headway to correct that. You don’t have that luxury. Though I believe it harbors a deep desire for the iPhone to be the corporate standard, Apple doesn’t pretend to be a business-oriented company; thus, it could ignore that audience and play to its entertainment strengths honed with the iPod and its creative strengths honed with the Mac. Microsoft has no such waves of passion to carry it past key omissions or compromises.

Don’t think Windows Mobile’s business strengths — the security and management capabilities where it did lead — will cut you any slack for the corporate audience. More than half of people who use smartphones in business buy their own, so those IT fond memories don’t carry the weight they used to. In business, you’re competing with both the iPhone and the BlackBerry. For individuals, you’re competing with the iPhone and Android. You can’t underperform in any core capabilities.

We all know what those core expectations are today, so if Windows Phone 7′s multithreading doesn’t deliver the experience users typically associate with multitasking, don’t pretend it does and ship it anyhow. If Zune is locked into Windows PCs, don’t include it; media management needs to be universal. The UI paradigm can’t change because the app does its own thing; the gesture language needs to be universal, and human interface guidelines need to be rigorously enforced. You get the idea.

3. Decide Who You Are

A major challenge is to figure out what Microsoft mobile is all about — that is, what kind of mobile platform you are. The Windows Phone 7 demos thus far focus on a social networking metaphor. Palm had a similar marketing pitch but didn’t really make it the organizing primciple of its WebOS.

I get the attraction: 20-somethings spend much more time texting and tweeting and Facebooking than they do emailing or making voice calls. If you believe that behavior will carry over into their 30s, you want adopt their behavior to become their preferred platform and displace Apple and Google as the young generation ages.

If that’s the case, be explicit about it. If owning the 20-somethings is your strategy but you pretend to be all things to all people, you’ll peeve a lot of users, including most in business. You can’t afford that lack of trust. Better to say who you are aimed at so that the rest of us don’t feel misled.

Conversely, if you want the new mobile platform to be multigenerational and appealing to both personal and business uses — which your Windows Mobile 7 team has suggested — you’d better stop the social networking fixation as your operating system’s organizing principle. It won’t work for most of us.

Instead, make great social networking apps that you provide with the OS, but don’t impose the social betworking style of constant interruption and fractional, reactive thinking on the operating system as a whole. Likewise, don’t market it as a social networking device but really deliver a multipurpose device; you’ll tee off the 20-somethings that way, perhaps forever.

In other words, figure out what kind of OS you are and deliver — no apologies, no fudges.

4. Drop the Windows Name

You should not call the operating system “Windows” anything. It’s not Windows. That advice doesn’t mean that Windows is bad; it means that the mobile OS is not a version of Windows but is instead its own thing. There’s a reason Apple doesn’t call the iPhone “mobile Mac OS X,” even though it’s based on Mac OS X. Along the same lines, Google was smart enough not to rename the Android OS it acquired to Chrome OS, the name of its forthcoming Web-device OS. Be as smart as they are.

While you’re at it, drop any Windows dependencies. That’s hard for Microsoft, given its historic desire to make Windows the basis of everything, but it’s a mistake. If Apple can learn to embrace Windows for its broad services like iTunes and MobileMe, and actively support Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync email protocol, so can you make Zune and Studio platform-neutral. After all, you want everyone to embrace your mobile platform, right? The Windows/Mac wars are history, as far as mobile users are concerned. Stop fighting that old battle in this new realm.

5. Kill the Kin

The Kin was a really stupid idea. When everyone is wondering if Microsoft can even take part in the mobile game, you come onto the field ready to play Twister when everyone else is limbering up for the baseball championship.

Even more stupid was calling it a Windows Phone — that’s sure to confuse its grab bag of an operating system with the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 OS that is supposed to be your reset moment. The Kin has some interesting ideas around social networking and, with the Kin Studio, social memory, but reviewers agree the Kin device and the OS are dogs.

I can’t believe you think it’s a successful product in the eyes of the market. You’re repeating your Vista blindness here. You need to put those dogs down, so when the real Microsoft mobile OS ships, the Kin is long forgotten. Pull the Kin from the market today, and recommend its team look for jobs at a competitor, where they might do you more food (maybe Nokia?).

If you really think you need a separate social networking phone for 20-somethings, fine. Make that a product line in your new mobile platform — but be sure to have a product line for grownups that isn’t about social networking. Right now, both the Kin and the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 are focused on a social networking approach to mobile. Why are you competing with yourself? At the very least, don’t do so until you can first successfully compete with Apple and Google.

None of This Will be Easy

Most of the advice in this blog post goes against Microsoft’s standard operating procedure. Steve, most of the mistakes I’ve highlighted have occurred under your watch as CEO and so are your responsibility — Windows 6.5 and Kin for darned sure.

Getting rid of the leadership that has failed you is a good step, and it served you well when you finally owned up to the debacle that was Vista, clearing the path for the cleaned-up version known as Windows 7. But your challenge here is actually greater than fixing Vista.

Windows 7 is essentially a retooling of Vista; your next mobile OS is a new mobile OS, not a retooling of Windows Mobile. Starting over should be freeing, and what little I’ve seen of Windows Phone 7 indicates there is some truly new thinking involved. But even if it is freeing, starting over is not easy, and if you’re using the same team that got and kept you in this mess, it’s even harder. Replacing the generals is likely not enough.

Plus, fixing the corrosive Microsoft culture of “we’ll get it right enough a few versions out” is an even tougher challenge. Corporate cultures are hard to change, and bad ones are like the Ebola virus: They infect anyone new very fast. You may want to separate this group from Microsoft, as if it were a separate company. Palm essentially had to do a engineering and leadership transplant to end years of destructive management maneuvering before it could create WebOS, but it lost its window of opportunity and came out with something that was a 90 percent solution to what Apple was already offering. You face the same danger.

You really have just this year to get this right. The iPhone is about to get its fourth OS version in the next few weeks, as well as new hardware. Apple has already moved the market past the smartphone to the slate with the iPad, yet Microsoft hasn’t even figured out the smartphone yet. Google now seems to be getting its act together for Android and could have a credible iPhone alternative in place by the holidays. RIM’s BlackBerry wil continue to decline to a core “all we want is email” customer base, but that customer base is as fiercely loyal as an Apple fanboy. There’s little space for Microsoft in all of this.

So, Steve, you need to hit a home run — actually, you need to hit it out of the park — for the Christmas holidays. After that, your only real chance is for Android to implode under the weight of too many variations or for Apple to lose Steve Jobs and thus interrupt the driving force behind its band of killer designers. Counting on someone else’s misfortune is not a likely path to victory.

Good luck — you’ll need that along with good technology and good management.

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