Things haven’t been going well for Microsoft for a while now. The list of failures is stacking up and it’s starting to get a little silly.

Windows Vista

I feel the need to stand up for Vista. It was nowhere near as bad as people made out. Sure it had a rocky start with poor drivers and a lack of support from 3rd parties but that was hardly Vista’s fault. MS were late to the party with user account control, so every XP home user ran as an administrator and as a consequence any piece of dodgy software they downloaded had free reign on their system. Vista corrected this but developers were a little slow to catch up. User account control has been a feature in UNIX systems since the early years but Windows users had become accustomed to being administrators – even those people who really shouldn’t. Software designed for XP would run in Vista, but only once you’d managed to bypass UAC.

Hardware requirements were quite high too, but it was being compared to XP which was already ancient by that point. What it did do was make the underspeccing of hardware by OEM’s really obvious. Regardless, Vista lost the popularity contest and a lot of people stuck with XP.

The Xbox 360

The PS3 was running late and my desire for some high-def console gaming needed to be satisfied. Microsoft were there to try to fill that gaming gap with their successor to the vast but dependable XBox. I had a PS2 and the original Xbox already so I wasn’t taking sides at this point.

It was early December and I had money burning a hole in my pocket, so I bought one of the early 360’s. Due to short supplies I had to get one that had a few games bundled with it, but that was no bother as I could sell them unopened. Unfortunately, within hours of setting it up and having a blast on Project Gotham Racing 2 the power brick started letting out this godawful whining noise. It really was intollerable so I called the support line, but they didn’t think there was a problem. In any case I hung up and called back later and spoke to someone else. I put the handset onto the PSU so they could have a listen and sure enough, they sent me a UPS label and within days I had a new PSU. Unfortunately, that was just the tip of the iceberg – the console would freeze randomly or tell me that the disc was unreadable even though it had gone straight from a sealed game box into the console and never removed. This went on for a year until it finally displayed the Red Ring of Death.

In the meantime, the internet was alive with stories of woe as 360’s were failing everywhere, whether it be from the RROD or the E74 error or its tendency to scratch discs under “excessive” vibration. There is a whole Wikipedia page on the 360’s problems here. Unfortunately, the console was too unreliable and by the time it had given up the ghost, the PS3 had come along.

The 360 isn’t a commercial failure, but it probably should have been. How many other companies could get away with creating something so shoddy and unreliable? If they hadn’t been first to market by a year, who knows how things would have turned out.

Project Origami

Origami was Microsoft’s foray into the “Ultra-mobile PC” world. The idea was to put a full-blown desktop operating system (Vista Home Premium) onto a handheld touch screen computer with barely enough power to run Minesweeper (I exaggerate, of course).

There were a few problems with this idea. At the time even proper (albeit entry level) desktop PC’s were having trouble running Vista. The second problem was that Vista was not designed for a touch screen interface. Put the two together and you have a slow PC with no keyboard and a tacked-on touchscreen interface. With an 800×480 screen, it was pretty cramped too.

Microsoft attempted to build anticipation for the project with a viral website, but the devices on offer didn’t really live up to the hype.

Fortunately their rivals realised that whilst there was “something” to this mobile computer lark, a mobile OS was a far better match for the hardware, so now we have the Apple iPad and a load of Android based tablets coming onto the market.

Even now Microsoft believes that Windows 7 – which is to all intents and purposes a service pack for Vista – is the right fit for the tablet form factor. It was nauseating to watch Steve Ballmer on BBC Click trying to justify it whilst failing to grasp the criticisms Spencer Kelly was putting forward to him.

BBC Click

The Zune

The Zune was Microsoft’s “better late than never” answer to the iPod. I don’t have hands-on experience of the Zune because it never made it to the UK and has only reached as far as Canada. On the face of it I’m not that bothered. I don’t want to deal with Windows-only software for managing a Zune and I don’t want to deal with “Microsoft Points” – I had enough of that with the 360. I don’t want to deal with PlaysforSure DRM either – I had enough of that with Napster. I’m pretty sure I still have files on my hard drive I can’t play because I “bought” them through Napster but had the sheer audacity to reinstall Windows so now they aren’t mine anymore.

It seems as though other people agreed with me. Following its launch in 2006, in 2008 Gamestop decided to stop selling Zune players due to insufficient demand.

Kin

The Kin was a couple of “social networking” phones from Microsoft that were sold through Verizon. The Kin was in development for two years, cost a billion dollars to develop but survived a mere six weeks before being canned due to poor sales. Microsoft blamed Verizon staff for not pushing the devices hard enough, but in reality it was never going to be able to compete with the iPhone or an Android handset. They aimed the phone at people between 15 and 30 – a demographic you could argue want something that has the “cool” factor. MS and ‘cool’ are not good bedfellows and I’m not surprised the Kin failed. In fairness the 15-30 group is a tough nut to crack, given that they usually have some idea about what it is they are buying. What is surprising is how quickly it was removed from sale.

The whole sorry effort has cost Mr Ballmer his fat bonus.

The Future….

Windows Phone 7

The force has never been strong with Windows mobile devices and the 7th release isn’t looking too good either – branded a “disaster” by Infoworld. The browser at launch was a hotchpotch of IE7 and IE8 and therefore wasn’t HTML5 compatible and already behind the times. There are updates on the way, but they seem to have a nasty habit of turning phones into paperweights.

Looking at the various side-by-side videos on the internet, the UI does seem quite chaotic, it cuts off long words and ultimately doesn’t look like enough to tempt me away from my iPhone. Regardless, I don’t think MS has enough clout in the mobile world to carry it off. iOS and Android are already out there, eating up the market and enjoying the support of 3rd party developers. I think they’ve left it too late and as I’ve mentioned before – they’re not “cool”. Even Nokia are struggling in this iOS & Android world.

Speaking of Nokia, the two companies have now jumped into bed together and are putting an OS nobody wants onto phones nobody is buying. Doh!

There’s an indepth preview on Engadget here if you are interested.

The Problem

The problem with Microsoft at the moment is that they are continually caught off-guard. Back in the days of Windows 95 they were caught sleeping on the job when the internet happened. More recently they were caught out by the iPod, the Playstation and the smartphone. In the browser market they’ve been caught napping by HTML5. This is especially bad thanks to Internet Explorer being installed on every Windows PC so it is basically holding everyone up.

By the time the Zune hit the market, most consumers already had an iPod and possibly a collection of songs bought through iTunes (with DRM at that point). Windows Phone 7 arrived at a time when the iPhone and a raft of Android phones are dominating the smartphone market.

Are you going to buy yourself out of your contract to swap your iPhone or HTC Desire for a W7 phone? I doubt it.