Bill Gates may be the Microsoft co-founder, but that doesn’t mean he can’t acknowledge a big mistake.
While speaking to David Rubinstein at the Economic Club of Washington luncheon on June 24, Gates, whose net worth is $102.9 billion dollars, made a surprising admission that his greatest mistake at Microsoft was letting Google’s Android platform dominate non-Apple mobile phone operating systems.
At the luncheon, Gates explained, “We’re in the field of doing operating systems for personal computers. We knew the mobile phone would be very popular, and so we were doing what was called Windows Mobile.”
The 63-year-old continued, “We missed being the dominant mobile operating system by a very tiny amount. We were distracted during our antitrust trial. We didn’t assign the best people to do the work. So it’s the biggest mistake I made in terms of something that was clearly within our skillset. “
Gates explained that his company failed at something he believed they could have had success in. “We were clearly the company that should have achieved that, and we didn’t.,” humbly said Gates. “We allowed this Motorola design win, and therefore the software momentum to go to Android, and so it became the dominant non-Apple mobile phone operating system globally.”
Staying humble about mistakes is likely what made Gates such a success. He famously said in the past, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
Throughout Microsoft’s 44-year history, Windows’ desktop operating system has been a core piece. But in regards to mobile operating systems, Microsoft has failed to win a leadership spot, far behind Alphabet’s Google, and Apple. Essentially ceding the mobile platform, Windows is a contributor of revenue and profit, but the company moved its focus more on cloud infrastructure and applications these days.
When mobile computing was taking off, Gates was no longer CEO. Instead, that position was held, Steve Ballmer. However Gates still the title of Chief Software Architect from 2001 through 2008 and was Chairman of the Board until 2014. Many have assumed that Microsoft’s missed mobile opportunity was a result of Ballmer’s mistake, since the then-CEO famously called the iPhone the “most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard.” He missed foreseeing the touch-friendly era, laughing off the phone due to its lack of having a keyboard. This mistake was a costly misstep in Microsoft’s aim to get dominance in the mobile arena.
Additionally, higher-ups at Microsoft spent months arguing over whether the company should scrap its Windows Mobile efforts entirely. At the time, their technology was not touch-friendly and utilized stylus-powered devices. Eventually, during an emergency meeting in December 2008, Microsoft decided to scrap Windows Mobile and completely reboot its mobile efforts with Windows Phone. But it never worked out for the computer company.
Back in 2005, Google acquired Android and former CEO Eric Schmidt has since admitted that Google’s focus was to beat Microsoft’s early Windows Mobile efforts.
“At the time we were very concerned that Microsoft’s mobile strategy would be successful,” said Schmidt during a 2012 legal fight with Oracle about Java. Android ultimately beat out Windows Mobile and Windows Phone, which led to their tech-death and essentially became the Windows equivalent in the mobile world.
Despite its mobile mistakes, Microsoft cloud business is going well these days.
At the luncheon, Gates said, “It’s amazing to me that having made one of the greatest mistakes of all time, and there was this antitrust lawsuit and various things, that our other assets like Windows and Office are still very strong, so we are a leading company.”
He added, “If we had gotten that one right, we would be the leading company, but oh well.”
Oh well, indeed.