Hubris rising

Steve Ballmer
Steve Ballmer (Image: Source: CIO)

Brexit and Microsoft's failure in mobile are a classic cases of history repeating, says Billy MacInnes

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28 June 2019 | 0

History is an amazing thing. We tend to think of history as something in the past but it’s incredible how often it becomes part of the present and the future. The current ructions in the UK over Brexit, for example, are frequently accompanied by invocations of its history, specifically World War 2.

For some people, Brexit is a return to the past where ‘Great Britain’ stood defiant and steadfast as the lone bastion of democracy against the forces of Nazism ravaging the European continent. The absurdity of equating the EU to Nazi Germany (or, in Jeremy Hunt’s case, comparing the EU to the USSR), shows how easily history can be corrupted if the populace is kept in a state of ignorance of the truth about their country’s story and its colonial past. The dismissive attitude of many Brexit-supporting politicians to the issue of the Irish backstop highlights just how little awareness there is of the history between Ireland and Great Britain. Or perhaps it’s just that however big that history is to Ireland, it is considered a mere blip in the glorious procession of empire by those across the Irish Sea.

History, or our ignorance of it, frames our decisions and our actions, for good or for bad. I’m reminded of this by the news concerning Bill Gates and the biggest mistake of his career. In an interview with Village Global, Gates stated that “the greatest mistake ever is whatever mismanagement I engaged in that caused Microsoft not to be what Android is. Android is the standard non-Apple platform… There’s room for exactly one non-Apple operating system.”

I have no doubt he is honest in his belief that failing to make Microsoft the other phone operating system was his greatest mistake, I’m just not sure that it ever could have achieved that goal. The history of Microsoft’s success is grounded in that company’s capture of the desktop operating system and applications markets and the ruthlessness with which it protected that space afterwards. The question is whether it was capable of replicating that model in the smartphone market.

Vendor beware

Would the phone manufacturers, for example, have been falling over themselves to license a mobile phone operating system from Microsoft having seen the extent of its influence over OEMs in the PC market? In any case, quite a few of them had their own operating systems. Why would they give them up? Would they really want to find themselves held hostage to the Windows ecosystem? And would they have trusted Microsoft to make the best decisions for their product development rather than its own platform?

Also, did Microsoft have the nous to develop an operating platform that would appeal to a market that was predominantly made up of consumers rather than business users? Remember what Steve Ballmer said of the iPhone? “It doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good e-mail machine.” Would Microsoft have appreciated there was a market for well-designed smartphones with intuitive user interfaces that weren’t priced at the low end? Did it have the culture to do that? Would it have understood the significance of carrier subsidies in that model? Would it have been perceptive enough to negotiate such a model? Judging by recent comments from Ballmer, probably not.

He certainly didn’t get it back in 2007 when he compared Apple’s strategy unfavourably to Microsoft’s where a user could get Windows Mobile on a Motorola Q phone for $99. “I kinda look at that and I say, well, I like our strategy. I like it a lot,” he said at the time.

The problem with history is that it’s not about where you are now but where you were then. Yes, we can all see how it can be changed from where we’re standing now but that’s because we know what we know now. We didn’t then. The same goes for Gates, Ballmer and Microsoft. Not recognising just how much of an impact the iPhone would make on the smartphone market was a big mistake. But it’s not something they would have been capable of getting right back then, no matter what they think now.

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