Wow! I’ve already written about the demise of the Microsoft Kin, describing it as mobile meltdown. But the true story behind its premature death – of infighting, political intrigue, and pure corporate misalignment with the real world – is simply staggering.
In short, it’s exactly what happens when a company grows so large that it starts competing with itself. It loses all sense of reality, and perceives that its internal rivalries are far more important than its external competition, with its loyal customers caught in the crossfire.
This, then, is the story of Microsoft’s Mobile strategy -or complete lack of it – in 2010. It’s gruesome reading, with developers, customers and $500 million companies all caught in the cross-fire.
Be warned – the story ain’t pretty!
The Story behind the Microsoft Kin
The Microsoft Kin was a concept that initially started life as Project Pink, directed by J Allard – the man behind the Xbox and XBox 360. Allard is something of legend in tech circles as the man who actually created a seriously cool product – the XBox – from a seriously uncool company – Microsoft.
Project Pink was meant to be a completely new range of mobile phone device that was completely separate fom the existing (and appalling!) mobile OS that Microsoft produced in the form of Windows Mobile. Indeed, it was actually initiated before Windows Mobile was completely redesigned as the forthcoming Windows Phone 7.
But despite the vision of J Allard, despite all the money and the effort that was thrown into Project Pink, it was killed off after selling just 10,000 units.
The true story behind its killing is simply shocking, and no doubt will be retold in a plethora of business books for years to come (presumably under the heading “how large companies fail”). Engadget has a magnificent post that describes the story in all its gory detail, and is a must read.
Rather than retell the whole story, I’ll simply point out the most horrific points! It’s a rather depressing story that reveals an awful lot about the internal problems that Microsoft faces, and which shows why Microsoft will never be a force in the world of mobile.
Note: This article represents my opinion, which itself is derived from the news coming from Engadget about the Microsoft Kin’s demise!
1. Killing Danger
Project Pink was to be a technological tour de force. However, it also required technological expertise that Microsoft didn’t have. The only company at the itme that did was a small company punching way above its weight called Danger.
Danger developed the T-Mobile Sidekick, a rather nifty smartphone. However, it wasn’t the Sidekick itself that was the company’s most notable feature, it was the combination of the technology it had developed, the patents it had registered, and the huge number of smart people it had on its team that had lead to this small startup being seen as a key disruptive company in the mobile sphere.
Then Microsoft bought the company in February 2008. They didn’t want the company, though, they just wanted its technology. They didn’t even want its people, most of whom fled far away from Microsoft as soon as they realised it was the fruits of their labours that their new owner wanted, rather than them themselves.
One of those people was Andy Rubin. You might know him better as the Director of Mobile Platforms for Google, who he joined directly after Microsoft gutted Danger. Andy Rubin is now overseeing development of Android, which is doing an awful lot better in the mobile arena than Windows Mobile, Microsoft, and certainly Project Pink.
But I digress. The real horror is that Microsoft were prepared to pay $500 million for a company’s technology, and then happily see all the people who created that technology walk out the door. It was simply the technology that Microsoft was interested in – the team behind meant nothing at all.
2. Vicious In-Fighting
At this stage of the story, we’re in mid-2008. The iPhone had been around for over a year and Microsoft was seriously losing out in the mobile phoen market as Windows Mobile hd been made to look like the dinosaur it truly is.
J Allard is seriously pushing ahead with Project Pink, but is determined not use any part of Windows Mobile, because he knows, like the rest of the world, just how bad it is. So he decides to create a completely new platform from the bits of Danger that he’s just acquired together, allegedly, with bits of Zune, which he also created.
You would think that this would annoy the person behind Windows Mobile, as it’s clearly a statement that says “your technology is crap, so I’m going to create my own.”
And, naturally, it did. That person, the man behind Windows Mobile, is Senior Vice President Andy Lees (below). Lees hated Project Pink, for many many reasons. Some – like the fact that it directly competed against Windows Mobiel – were purely rational and made perfect sense from a business perspective. But others – like the fact that he was deeply jealous (allegedly!) of Project Pink -were more rooted in ego and internal fighting.
This is not good for a company!
So Lees exerted pressure and eventually ended up with ownership of Project Pink. Allard, eventually, left Microsoft, leaving Project Pink solely in the hands of Lees, a man with less vision than Allard, more time and energy invested in Windows Mobile, and a man with every motive to kill Project Pink as soon as he possibly could.
And that’s exactly what he did!
3. Releasing a deliberately awful product
The end result was that Project Pink turned into the Microsoft Kin, which was actually developed and released, simply to satisfy the contract that Microsoft had with Verizon when Project Pink was first initiated. In order for Windows Phone 7, as Windows Mobile turned into, to be the focus of Microsoft’s (and Lees’s) main mobile offering, though, Kin had to be seen to be a poor product.
And it was, A very poor product! Over-priced, under-specced, and simply ridiculous in concept, the Kin never stood a chance. The fact that Microsoft released it at all shows how little they care about the customer. The Kin was never designed to be a success. It was designed to be a failure.
If you bought a Kin, you bought a product that was developed solely to meet contractual obligations, not because the company who made it thought it was any good. If that bothers you, then do you really want to buy a product from that company again? If not, then avoid any phoen based on Windows Phone 7 like the plague!
4. Killing the careers of talented developers
But let’s not forget the people who made the Kin. The developers, the coders, the systems architects, even the original employees of Danger. These people developer the product they were told to build, even though they knew it sucked.
They had no choice.
And now? Now they’re not allowed to join the team working on Windows Phone 7. The two groups are kept very much apart. Windows Phone 7 is Lees’s team, whereas the Kin was Allard’s team, and never the twain shall meet.
According to Engadget:
“…many, if not most Kin staffers are literally twiddling their thumbs at their desks, and it’s unclear who will get to keep their jobs in the long term.”
This is a shocking waste of talent.
5. Squandering the success they could have had
The story behind the death of the Kin is almost unbelievable. From wasting $500 million on a company for its technology that was never used; to developing a product to be deliberately bad just ot meet contractual obligations, regardless of the people who actually bought it; to stalling the careers of the talented developers who actually developed the product, just because they worked for the wrong team.
All of this leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and no doubt will for the majority of other talented developers who may now think twice before joining Microsoft.
The fact that Google had so much success with Android, which has been developed by much of the core team from Danger, shows how much possibility Project Pink could have had if Microsoft had managed it properly. As it is, they squandered a golden opportunity, letting Google race away from them while they focused on their own bitter in-fighting to the detrement of their customers.
The danger is that this level of in-fighting is systemic throughout the company. That it’s not confined just to the mobile world, but that it’s endemic within the company.
If so, then Microsoft, for all its success in the past, might be on the long slope to decline.
I truly hope not, but as things stand, I think I can safely say this: Microsoft has lost its way in the world of mobile, and will never compete with the likes of Google and Apple.