Ballmer was right about one thing. We got a chance to watch consumer markets unfold with phones and music players. Zune failed miserably. Windows Mobile accounted for 15.7 percent of the U.S. mobile market in January 2010, according to comScore, but in two years Microsoft's flagship mobile product slipped to 3.9 percent. Outside the United States, Windows Mobile never amounted to half a hill of beans.
Then there was the Kin, the short-lived square-ish mobile phone with social networking aspirations. In a move reminiscent of "The Cat in the Hat," in 2010, we were offered Kin One and Kin Two. Like Thing One and Thing Two, the Kin was locked in a software box -- a client-server architecture that didn't allow third-party apps -- although the hardware was based on an ARM design. Verizon started selling Thing One and Thing Two in May 2010; 48 days later, Verizon gave up and sent all of its unsold Kins back to Microsoft.
Last month, Wired ran a series of leaked internal Microsoft videos that show pre-release testing of the Kin, and the results were devastating: Testers couldn't figure out how to perform even the most basic functions. If you bought a phone, you would expect to be able to make a call with it, right? Silly mortals. Heaven only knows why Microsoft continued the project.
Then there's the tablet debacle. Bill Gates talked about the Tablet PC in his Comdex Fall 2000 keynote, and Tablet PC general manager Alexandra Loeb gave the details in a Microsoft press release from November 2000:
First and foremost, the Microsoft vision for a Tablet PC is that it's a full Windows computer. It runs all of your familiar productivity applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and offers the same rich connectivity to the Internet that you expect from your desktop or notebook PC. ... Because you can write on the screen, it's optimized for tasks that are very common in business computing -- like taking notes at a meeting or annotating a document, or for immersive reading. ... There are no compromises.
No compromises. Immersive. Twelve years ago. Thankfully, she didn't mention "fast" or "fluid."
The first Windows XP Tablet PC Edition tablets appeared in 2002 and drew loud applause from a small group of fans, along with skepticism from many corners. Ultimately, the market spoke. Windows Tablet PC hardly rates a footnote.
Did Microsoft learn its lesson? Consider that in 2006, Microsoft hooked up with Intel and Samsung to work on Project Origami, the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) effort that culminated in a small handful of touch-sensitive machines, some of which ran Windows Tablet PC Edition. Slow, clunky, battery-deprived, and almost universally despised, the Origamis hardly broke the consumer surface.
Then came the Microsoft Courier, arguably Microsoft's most innovative mobile device to date: dual 7-inch touchscreens, hinged in the middle as a book; high-resolution (for the time) camera. Nobody knows for sure, but reports say it would've weighed about a pound, sported Wi-Fi, an inductive charger, and a Home button, driven by an ARM Nvidia Tegra processor. The tile-less Infinite Journal interface would look more like a diary and offer touch or stylus access to a contact list, task organizer, free-form drawing program, email, browser, and maybe even an e-reader.
Reports of the Courier began circulating in 2008, just after the Origami went down in flames and shortly before rumors started leaking about the iPad. As best as anyone can tell, the project was killed in 2010, soon after the first iPad shipped. Ballmer spiked it in a shoot-out between the Courier's biggest proponent J Allard and Steve Sinofsky, who was busy consolidating his vision of Windows 8 on a tablet and didn't want to get sidetracked (or sideswiped) by the Windows CE-based Courier. Ultimately, Sinofsky won, the Courier died, and both J Allard and his boss Robbie Bach left Microsoft shortly after, a brain bust that has significant repercussions to this day.
Does Microsoft "get" consumer mobile? A couple of decades and multiple billions of dollars later, that's still a pertinent question. You can draw your own conclusions.