When people think of innovative tech companies, they generally don’t think of Microsoft. Microsoft has actually had a history of innovative products and ideas, but they’ve failed to execute them over and over again.
Microsoft is trying to catch up with Windows 8, Windows Phone, Surface tablets, and other products and services, but let’s set those aside for a moment. How did Microsoft get to a point where it needed to catch up with its competitors?
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We know Amazon as the company that pioneered the eReader with the Kindle line of devices, revolutionizing the publishing industry. But Microsoft could have beaten Amazon to market. Bright minds at Microsoft had a prototype eReader ready nine years before the Kindle was released. In a Vanity Fair article investigating Microsoft’s “lost decade,” we find this anecdote:
“Microsoft had a prototype e-reader ready to go in 1998, but when the technology group presented it to Bill Gates he promptly gave it a thumbs-down, saying it wasn’t right for Microsoft. “He didn’t like the user interface, because it didn’t look like Windows,” a programmer involved in the project recalls.”
Instead, the technology group developed Microsoft Reader, a Windows application for reading eBooks. It never really went anywhere and Microsoft discontinued it in 2012.
Smartphones Take 1: Windows Mobile
Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, but Apple provided a well-designed interface that allowed smartphones to explode in the public consciousness, becoming a must-have item. Microsoft had their own smartphone platform years before the iPhone. It was known as Windows Mobile.
When the iPhone was released in 2007, Steve Ballmer said:
“$500? Fully subsidized, with a plan? I said that is the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine….
We have our strategy. We’ve got great Windows Mobile devices in the market today…. I like our strategy. I like it a lot….
Right now we’re selling millions and millions of phones a year. Apple is selling zero phones a year. In six months, they’ll have the most expensive phone by far ever in the marketplace. And let’s see. Let’s see how the competition goes.”
Windows Mobile was Microsoft’s first answer to Apple’s iPhone, and we all saw how the competition went — it wasn’t even a competition.
So what happened with Microsoft’s millions and million of Windows Mobile phones? Windows Mobile was the second-most popular smartphone platform behind Nokia’s Symbian and ahead of Blackberry, after all. Windows Mobile never had the ideal interface — it had a Start menu, taskbar, and even a Windows registry. It was designed to be used with its keyboard or a stylus, not with a finger-based touch interface. Windows Mobile never even had a dedicated app store until 2009. Whatever the reason, it’s clear Microsoft failed to leverage their huge lead over Apple to deliver a competitive product.
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Smartphones Take 2: Kin
The Kin isn’t very well-known, but it was Microsoft’s second attempt to respond to Apple’s iPhone. Whether Microsoft’s Kin was or wasn’t a smartphone platform is a matter of debate — Microsoft described them as “social phones.” The Kin was designed for users of social-networking services and offered web access, but it didn’t allow installation of other apps. Kin owners couldn’t play a single game on their phones. However, it launched on Verizon Wireless with a data plan priced the same as smartphone data plans.
Verizon started selling the Kin on May 6, 2010 — nearly 3 years after the first iPhone was released. After less than two months, Verizon stopped selling them due to poor sales and returned all the unsold Kin phones to Microsoft. Their monthly plans were priced the same as iPhone and Android phone plans, but they weren’t anywhere near as capable and couldn’t compete.
“We had a huge launch party on campus and I bet that party cost more than the amount of revenues we took in on the product.”
Microsoft didn’t invent the tablet, but they were trying to create tablets for a long time before Apple cracked the market with the iPad. Microsoft released “Windows XP Tablet PC Edition” in 2002, eight years before Apple released the iPad.
Microsoft thought the ideal operating system for a tablet was the Windows desktop, complete with a taskbar, Start menu, and tiny touch targets. They included a stylus with their tablets, allowing users to enter text by handwriting and manipulate the many small options in Windows with the stylus rather than their finger. Microsoft never encouraged an operating system or software developed specifically for a tablet. Tablets supported touch input, but this was more designed for stylus input than finger input.
Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface tablets aren’t Microsoft’s first response to Apple’s iPad. Microsoft announced the HP Slate with Windows 7 weeks before the iPad was announced. Even after the iPad was announced, Steve Ballmer maintained that the HP Slate was a superior product.
Unlike the iPad, the HP Slate would run a full desktop operating system — Windows 7. There was no customized interface for touch input. You’d have to use the standard Start menu, taskbar, and Windows desktop applications with your finger. Years later, a New York Times story gave us a look behind the scenes of the HP Slate tablet project:
“In the end, the H.P. tablet was thick, the Intel processor it used made the device hot, and the software and screen hardware did not work well together, causing delays whenever a user tried to perform a touch action on its screen…
H.P. fumed at Microsoft for not doing more to create Windows software that was better suited to touch-screen devices. Executives complained that Windows 7’s keyboard software did not work well, and that on-screen icons were too small for fingers to tap.”
Microsoft’s Courier project, another innovative tablet PC prototype that was announced to great interest, was also cancelled before it could ever see the light of day.
Web Browsers: Internet Explorer
Geeks don’t see Internet Explorer as an innovative browser. Internet Explorer 9 and 10 may be more modern, but Internet Explorer was struggling to catch up with modern browsers as previous versions were far surpassed by Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.
It will be a surprise to many people, but Internet Explorer was actually very innovative at one point. The “AJAX” technology that allows websites like Gmail to send and receive data without refreshing the page, allowing interactive web applications to run in the browser — was invented by Internet Explorer.
At one point, Internet Explorer was ahead. However, Microsoft squandered their lead. After releasing Internet Explorer 6 in 2001, and with 95% market share in web browsers, they stopped trying. They moved their Internet Explorer developers to other projects, such as Silverlight. Internet Explorer became the outdated browser used by people who didn’t know about Mozilla Firefox.
Internet Explorer didn’t really become remotely competitive again until Internet Explorer 9, which was released in 2011 — 10 years after Internet Explorer 6 was released. (Internet Explorer 7 contained browser tabs and a few features, but was very similar to IE 6 under the hood. Internet Explorer 8 didn’t advance anywhere near enough, either.)
Internet Explorer could be the best, most innovative browser out there — but Microsoft stopped trying after they got ahead, only picking up development again once they were way behind other browsers.
For more details on Internet Explorer’s sad history of missed opportunities, read HTG Explains: Why Do So Many Geeks Hate Internet Explorer?
Web-Based Email: Hotmail
Microsoft purchased Hotmail in 1997. Google released Gmail in 2004 — seven years later. Gmail was far superior to Hotmail when it was released, featuring a much cleaner interface, conversation views, a huge amount of storage space, and a very effective spam filter. Many web users immediately switched over to the far-superior Gmail. Hotmail has improved, and Microsoft’s Outlook.com is now actually fairly competitive with Gmail in many ways. However, Gmail is still seen as the superior product — at least among the majority of tech geeks.
It didn’t have to be this way. Microsoft had a seven-year head start and could have built Hotmail into what Gmail was. However, they allowed Hotmail to stagnate and were slow to respond to Gmail’s shake-up of the webmail industry. Once again, Microsoft fell behind after an early lead and has struggled to regain that lead.
PC Gaming: Games for Windows Live
When someone thinks of the most popular game store for PC gamers, they’re likely thinking of Valve’s Steam. Steam provides a game store, achievements, a friends list, chat features, social networking, and more.
Microsoft has its own PC game store with friends, achievements, chat features, and more. It’s called Games for Windows Live. Microsoft’s GFWL launched in 2007, six years ago. In its initial release, games using Microsoft’s GFWL platform required its users to pay for a monthly subscription fee to play multiplayer PC games online. They later offered free multiplayer, but this was a terrible way to introduce themselves to PC gamers who didn’t want to pay a monthly subscription fee for a service that was already free on the PC.
GFWL offers its own online store, which has now become the Xbox Games Store for PC. It’s pretty small and only offers a few games. Gamers still have to deal with GFWL when they buy games with GFWL integration on other stores such as Steam, and GFWL has not provided a good experience. GFWL causes many games to be unstable, lose save games, produce error messages that require hunting through the Windows file system to fix, and more. Games using GFWL don’t even work properly on Windows 8 until an update for GFWL is installed.
Many PC gamers see Microsoft’s GFWL as a terrible service and plead for developers to not include GFWL in their games.
It didn’t have to be this way, either — why does Microsoft, creator of the Windows PC platform, not have an amazing PC gaming experience that competes with Steam or even surpasses it?
Instead of building loyalty with PC gamers, GFWL has soured them on Microsoft-driven PC gaming experiences. Valve is using its dominance on the Windows platform and attempting to build up Linux into a Windows competitor for PC gaming.
Smart watches are all the rage at the moment, at least in the tech media. In addition to the already-released Pebble, which was funded on Kickstarter, companies like Apple, Google, Samsung, Sony, and even Microsoft are rumored to be working on their own smart watches.
Microsoft actually had a smart watch platform, known as the SPOT watch, which was discontinued in 2008. Perhaps the SPOT watch just didn’t provide a good experience, perhaps Microsoft failed to market it properly, perhaps people didn’t want to pay a subscription fee for their smart watch, or perhaps the SPOT watch was just too far ahead of its time. One thing’s for sure — Microsoft certainly hasn’t leveraged their early lead in smart watches.
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Operating Systems: Longhorn
Microsoft’s Longhorn development went so poorly that, after three years of development, all of the work was thrown out and they started again on the operating system that would become Windows Vista. Advertised features like WinFS, a database-based file system, have never materialized.
While Microsoft was developing Longhorn, Apple announced a new operating system named “Tiger” in June 2004. When Tiger was announced, Longhorn “took as long as 10 minutes to boot up. It was unstable and frequently crashed” according to the same Vanity Fair article, which gives us an inside look at Microsoft’s reaction.
“Inside Microsoft, jaws dropped. Tiger did much of what was planned for Longhorn—except that it worked.” Apple had many of Longhorn’s features stable and already-released, but Microsoft decided to give up on them and start development again.
Had Longhorn development gone better, Microsoft could have put up more of a fight against Apple’s OS X. Windows XP may have been popular, but it was no question which operating system was more advanced when Windows XP was placed next to Apple’s OS X Tiger. Even after Windows Vista was released — after a six year Windows development cycle — it was roundly panned by the critics.
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Apple has the Macbook Pro with retina display, a powerful, well-built machine with a high-DPI display and high-quality trackpad. Google’s Chrome OS ecosystem even has the Chromebook Pixel, a premium laptop with an even more impressive display than the Macbook’s. The Windows PC ecosystem has no real alternative to the Macbook Pro or Chromebook Pixel if you want to get your hands on a well-built laptop with great support. Macs may be expensive, but you can take your Mac to a local Apple Store and get it serviced if you have a problem. PC manufacturers don’t generally offer this level of support — you usually have to send your broken laptop in and wait for a replacement, which can be a problem if that laptop is your only computer.
Microsoft realizes PC manufacturers have done a terrible job of competing with Apple’s hardware, which is why they’ve launched their own Surface hardware free of bloatware and made from high-quality materials. But the PC ecosystem still has no real competitor to the Macbook Pro or even the Chromebook Pixel. PC manufacturers have engaged in a race to the bottom, sacrificing clean software experiences, well-built computers, and excellent support for the lowest possible prices.
Microsoft has actually been a very innovative company, often beating other companies to promising market segments by years. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to execute on that innovation and have seen their competitors pass them by.
Windows 8 and Windows Phone face an uphill battle given consumer perceptions of the Microsoft brand.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 05/1/13