What Steve Ballmer needs to do to save Microsoft's mobile bacon

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

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.

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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.

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