Preston Gralla

How Ballmer's Windows-dependency has helped kill Microsoft's chance at tablet success

April 05, 2011 4:24 PM EDT
By Preston Gralla

Microsoft built its business on the back of Windows, but by insisting that tablets use Windows, CEO Steve Ballmer Microsoft has helped kill its chances at succeeding with tablets. So concludes a recent article in Forbes, and I think it's right on target.

The Fortune article, titled The problem with Microsoft..., says many of Microsoft's current problems, including lagging in mobile and innovation, have been caused by CEO Steve Ballmer's blind spots, including his too-heavy reliance on Windows for products for which it's not well suited.

The article starts off with a telling anecdote. It says that back in 2009, a team inside Microsoft had developed a tablet code-named Courier. People outside the company who had seen it were extremely impressed, and coders inside the company were convinced it could be a breakthrough for Microsoft in the tablet market. The tablet had some Windows-like features, but wasn't based on Windows code.

The article goes on to say that Robbie Bach, who at the time was head of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, went to Ballmer to ask for support and funding. The article then says:

Bach learned a hard lesson about the power and might of Windows within Microsoft. Not only would Bach not receive the extra funding he sought, said Ballmer, who personally delivered the blow, but there would be no Courier because it was unnecessary. The best of Courier, where appropriate, would be folded into the next version of Windows, Windows 8, due at the end of 2011 or in 2012 -- or maybe even Windows 9. Several months after its death, Bach announced his retirement.
And here we are, well into 2011, and Microsoft is still being killed in the tablet market. Windows tablets are well into the future. The iPad continues to clean up, and countless Android tablets will be released in the coming months.

I've said previously that Windows is the wrong operating system for tablets. It needs too much overhead, requires too much hardware, and because it's updated infrequently, reliance on it will slow down tablet development.

Beyond that, tablets based on Windows 8 won't be available until late 2011 or early 2012 at the very earliest, and likely beyond that. By that time, the tablet market will be sewn up by iPads and Android tablets.

Ballmer's heavy reliance on Windows for purposes that it's not suited for is one more example of why he's hurting the company. Even Microsoft employees have lost faith in him. I wouldn't be surprised if the eventual failure of Windows tablets leads to him leaving the company.