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Friday, 20 September 2013 08:11

Ballmer acknowledges mobile missteps

Written by Peter Scott

In Wall Street farewell address

Outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer donned his Captain Obvious cape and addressed Wall Street in four different presentations Thursday, admitting some mistakes during his 13-year tenure at the helm of Microsoft.

He told investors and analysts that Microsoft still has a bright future, although he admitted that some things could have been done better, notably smartphones.

"If there's one thing I regret, there was a period in the early 2000s when we were so focused on what we had to do around Windows that we weren't able to redeploy talent to the new device form factor called the phone," said Ballmer.

Hindsight doesn’t really help at this point, but although it is easy to criticise Ballmer and other Redmond execs for their failure to aggressively pursue the mobile market, it is also necessary to look at the bigger picture. Microsoft was lulled into a false sense of security more than ten years ago. Blackberry and Symbian were there, but so was Windows Mobile. Each platform had its advantages and shortcomings, but Microsoft appeared to have the most long-term potential.

However, in 2005 Google bought a small startup with a robotic mobile OS for just $50 million and Apple was rumoured to be working on a phone. Microsoft just didn’t see the threat, and neither did Nokia and RIM. Android was supposedly going to take years to get off the ground, while Apple was expected to simply glue a phone on top of an iPod and come up with a fun phone for kids, thus leaving the more serious market to RIM, Microsoft and to some extent Symbian.

Obviously it didn’t play out that way. By the time Microsoft, RIM and Nokia came to realise the threat, it was already too late. Apple knocked them down and then Android jumped in to give them a kicking while they were on the ground.

Ballmer ended the presentation with a curious remark. He said he would become an “interested bystander” with a 4-percent stake in the company. In reality, Microsoft will spend the next few years dealing with the consequences of Ballmer’s decisions, good and bad – so even after he is long gone, he will end up getting the blame for everything that went wrong, even if he keeps a low profile. He will effectively become Microsoft’s equivalent of George W. Bush.

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