Windows Mobile RIP – or how Steve Ballmer committed avoidable career suicide

The ironic painful failure of Windows Mobile

One of the ironic things this century on technology is CEOs from many tech firms tried and failed to move their PC efforts to Smartphones and lost their jobs.  In some cases, more than one CEO at the same company lost their job only to find their successors killed the programs and did just fine.  This was especially true of Microsoft (Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author) where Ballmer’s mobile failure seemed to be the straw that caused his friend Bill Gates to can him, his successor, Satya Nadella, just effectively killed the program and not only isn’t he at risk, it just seemed to be the right thing to do.  

The true irony of this was that it seemed like the world tried to help Ballmer do the right thing but Steve avoided or ignored all the warnings and help and fielded a strategy that had no chance of being successful even though he had the resources, experience, and had just failed with Zune which should have alerted him to the related problem and risk. 

Let’s review Windows Mobile’s tragically short life. 

Steve Jobs vs. Steve Ballmer – or iPod vs. Zune

What is fascinating as a back drop is that Steve Jobs got how important and powerful good demand generation was.  The irony here is that Steve, prior to Apple, had no marketing background while Steve Ballmer came out of Procter and Gamble which was at the time considered to be one of the most powerful marketing entities on the planet.  The level of research and execution that came out of a company like Proctor and Gamble massively eclipsed anything any tech company did or does. 

In addition, Microsoft was created around the strategy called “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish” they effectively used in to create Office and wipe out Lotus.  Particularly for executives there at the time, including both Steve and Bill, this strategy should have been branded on their brains. 

Yet with Zune the marketing was pathetic, Apple easily out marketed Microsoft and the feature set in Zune was crippled making the difficulty of marketing the product much higher.  In addition, Microsoft never embraced the iPod, it seemed like they just forgot the strategy that founded the company, and Zune failed.   The products advantages like being more robust, being able to show video, and music sharing either weren’t marketed, didn’t work due to lack of content, or wouldn’t work with your friend’s MP3 player. 

But this should have been a warning to Steve that to be successful against Apple he’d need to market heavily, assure he was at least competitive on features, and execute Embrace, Extend, Extinguish. 

Killing Windows Mobile

Now they only seemed to learn one thing from the Zune failure and that was that building their own product was stupid and did license out Windows Mobile.  They did a better marketing program but while the quality of the ads were far better they seemed not to understand that campaigns, to be successful against a large dominant competitor, need to run for years and Microsoft ran them for weeks.  They needed a critical mass of apps but Microsoft underfunded that effort and never reached that critical mass.  Most ironically during this time Google launched Android and effectively executed on Embrace and Extend but chose not to move to extinguish in effect out executing Microsoft on their own strategy with significant success yet Microsoft again refused to seemingly even try that strategy.

Now I could argue he was cheap, which given he is one of the richest guys in the world personally is ironic, but he did buy most of Nokia.  Had he invested at that level up front Windows Mobile likely would have been vastly more successful but buying Nokia, who was on life support, not only didn’t fix any of the issues it consumed resources that would have been better spent market building effectively adding insult to injury. 

Windows Mobile was designed to fail

So, Steve personally had the skills to out market Apple but chose not to use them, he’d learned that he needed to fully feature match Apple from the Zune failure but chose not to match on developers, and he not only was expert on the winning strategy Google again showcased how powerful that strategy was right in his face and he failed to implement it. 

In the end Nadella showcased a better approach to the problem and that is that if you are unwilling to do what is needed to get the job done it is far safer to exit the effort than to waste money and fail.   For Ballmer who was famous for not tolerating under-performance in others, he lost his job for exhibiting the behavior that he would never have tolerated in a subordinate.  

This leads us to the final irony, had Steve Ballmer held himself to the same level of performance he demanded in others he’d likely still be running Microsoft and Windows Mobile would have been successful.   He didn’t and it wasn’t… 

I’ll leave you with one more thing, if firms focused more on analyzing and learning from failures to avoid repeating mistakes rather than focusing on blame and terminating those that made them, we’d likely have far less of the damn things.  Just saying…

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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