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Mary Jo’s top flops list

Now that Bill Gates has announced his transition plans, Mary Jo takes the opportunity to enumerate what she believes have been Microsoft’s top 10 flops.

First, by definition, if you line up all projects of any individual or company, ranking them by some seemingly important measure of success, you’d wind up with a bottom “top 10.” So no one should take it personally when someone creates a list of the least successful projects. In fact, it’s often good to do so–in order to try to figure out how to do better the next time.

I’m guessing that Mary Jo is only including projects that actually made it to market. Actually, I bet most “flops” were pulled before they had a chance to hit the retail streets. Reading through her top 10 It looks like she’s more interested in products that had a chance to be booted up by a customer rather than strategic or technical flops.

Microsoft Bob makes her number one entry; Windows ME is number two, and so on.

You know what? I’d argue that it was a far bigger “mistake” to let various technologies lapse over the years. Take IE. Or the Windows API itself. Or various intricacies of COM. To me, major mistakes have been made in each of these. Of course, so what. As Microsoft has demonstrated over and over again, the real secret to business is not making mistakes, it’s what you do after you make them. Do you give up or do you wipe the dirt off and go at it again? Microsoft has shown a knack for dusting itself off. Take network during the 80s and early 90s as an example. Or searching today. Microsoft often tries and tries again, when it counts.

I also wouldn’t have added to the list “Linux” as Mary Jo has though. Microsoft has not needed a Linux distro–no more than Apple has needed one. It would have been fine to provide a Linux offering, but it doesn’t take much extrapolating to figure such a product would have made Mary Jo’s list anyway. Think about it.

Mary Jo also adds the Tablet PC/Pen Computing/eBooks projects to her flop list. First, it’s probably not fair to lump each of these three distinct efforts together like this that span over a decade (and what about Smart Displays???), but OK, I’ll take the bait. I’d agree that Pen Computing fell far short of what I would have expected. And eBooks still have a long way to go too. So do Tablets for that matter.

But you know what? Where’s the trend? Notice how significant the advancements have been in these areas over the last decade. Tablets, for instance, may not be worthwhile to Mary Jo at this point, but that’s OK, not every product will fit her needs. Does that mean the neighbor kids can’t use a Tablet to share their drawings with? Or that an engineering student, or a system architect and designer, or a doctor can’t leverage the digital world with their own handwriting? I’m guessing that’s not what she’s meaning. What she is suggesting–and I think she’s absolutely right on–is that when it comes to the Tablet PC there are still two significantly sized unsatisfied camps: Those that want to stick with paper and pen thank you very much and those that see the potential of Tablet PCs, but have far greater expectations that what is currently available. The first group you can’t do much about. The second camp is ahead of their time. In many areas the technology isn’t there yet. Part of this is that there hasn’t been a desire to create it. That’s a problem. Part of this is that other technologies are so successful that you have to compete against them in design, manufacturing, and marketing so the market will only mature at the rate that consumers “pull” the Tablets along.

However, for the two million Tablet PCs that have found a home over the last three years in what I’m estimating is around a $3 billion dollar market, it’s clear to see that there is a market. Should Microsoft dump it because it’s too small? Absolutely not. Why? Once again: Watch the technology trends. The numbers are growing for a reason. What reason? Because the technology is becoming more and more practical.

Take Centrino, for instance. It had a huge impact on the Tablet market. And soon there will be WiMAX. This too will introduce a systemic change in the market as Tablet users gain at least a 10 fold increase in mobile connected time (my estimate). And this says nothing about advances in handwriting recognition, drawing tools, Internet sharing advancements in ink, and so on. Each of these may improve at a slower rate, however, combined they are creating compelling stories. Some may have to suspend disbelief to see them though.

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