Following the news that Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer will be resigning within the next twelve months, it is interesting to look back and evaluate the thirteen-year tenure since Bill Gates handed him the reigns. While profits and revenues have doubled and even tripled in some areas under Ballmer, he has also overseen a number of disastrous product and service launches over the years. We’ve handpicked five favorites ahead.
1. Zune Player (2006)
Apple redefined the portable media player with the release of the iPod, a sleek and slim device with a simple and refreshing design. With a creative name and an effective marketing campaign, the iPod quickly dominated its industry. It wasn’t until five years later, in late 2006, that Microsoft attempted to respond with a product of their own, the Zune.
Microsoft launched a myriad of different Zune models in the ensuing years, alongside a music subscription service called Zune Music Pass, but Apple had already released a touchscreen iPod touch — alongside the iPhone — by then. The ill-fated Zune failed to ever reach mainstream status, and Microsoft officially dropped the devices from its lineup in October 2011.
2. Windows Vista (2007)
In what Steve Ballmer has admittedly called his biggest regret, I present you with Windows Vista. A matter of weeks after the Zune launched, Microsoft seeded the initial release of its Vista operating system. By time the software publicly launched in January 2007, Vista had been widely criticized for performance issues, digital rights management, cost, licensing and numerous other issues.
Apple pounced on this opportunity by launching its effective Mac vs PC marketing campaign, a series of ads that touted the Mac as being a cooler alternative to Windows-based PCs. Microsoft would quickly put Steven Sinofsky in charge of developing a successor to the less-than-favorable Vista, which came in the form of Windows 7 a few years later.
3. Microsoft Kin (2010)
Microsoft’s attempt at releasing a hip and social smartphone, targeted at men and women aged 15 to 30 years old, failed miserably. Launched in April 2010, the Kin smartphone was sold by Verizon Wireless for a mere two months, before it was dropped due to poor sales.
Microsoft was returned all unsold inventory and scrapped its European release plans. I’m not sure what is worse: the Kin smartphone itself, or the fact that Microsoft spent $1 billion on research and development for this device. Either way, it’s something that Microsoft will gladly try to forget.
4. Microsoft Courier (2010)
While the Courier isn’t technically a product launch, Microsoft is heavily criticized for cancelling plans to release the dual-screen tablet, which could have competed with the iPad at its inception. As noted on Wikipedia, “the unit would have contained dual-touchscreens that faced each other in a booklet form factor, and would have utilized a stylus and finger touch for input.”
According to reports, it was Microsoft chairman Bill Gates that axed the Courier during its project stage, so Ballmer is at little fault for this lack of execution. Nevertheless, especially when looking at how poorly the Surface tablet is playing catch up, it’s interesting to think if this could have been the Windows-based equivalent of the iPad in terms of popularity.
5. Microsoft Surface (2012)
This last inclusion on the list will probably generate quite the controversy, but there is no denying that the Surface tablet has failed. Microsoft was three years too late to the market, one that has already been dominated by the iPad and countless Android-based tablets.
Look no further than the $900 million loss that Microsoft took for unsold inventory, and the paltry 900,000 units sold in each of the past two quarters. Comparatively, Apple sold 14.6 million iPads during the most recent quarter alone. Microsoft needs to return to the drawing board on this one.
While it’s easy to point out the number of products that have failed at Microsoft under Steve Ballmer, the man also deserves recognition for the successful products on the opposite end of the spectrum. Xbox has been the leading gaming console for two dozen consecutive months, Windows and Office remain profit-driving software platforms, and even Windows Phone shows a glimpse of promise.