Microsoft's biggest flops of the decade

Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone earn a thumb's down as three of Microsoft's biggest failures during the 2010s.

Microsoft Silicon Valley Center - Mountain View, CA

Image: iStockphoto/jejim

Microsoft can certainly be credited for helping kick-start and revolutionize the personal computer industry. From the early days of DOS to the current landscape of Windows, Office, and other popular products, the company has, in many ways, expanded the benefits of technology for both consumers and businesses. But as Microsoft has attempted to keep up with the market or try different strategies, the company has also stumbled with certain products that failed to catch on for a variety of reasons. Here are three of the biggest flops that Microsoft has unveiled over the past decade.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

Windows 8

After achieving success with Windows 7, Microsoft attempted to try something different with the next iteration of Windows in 2012. Realizing that people no longer worked just on personal computers, the company strove to create a new version of Windows that would be equally at home on PCs and tablets. But therein lies the problem: By trying to be all things to all people, Windows 8 flunked on all fronts.

In its attempt to be more tablet friendly, Windows 8 failed to appeal to desktop users, who were still more comfortable with the Start menu, the standard Desktop, and other familiar features of Windows 7. Windows 8 also proved too radical a departure from its predecessor. Rather than slowly transition users to a new way of working, Microsoft unleashed a slew of abrupt changes all at once. No more Start button, the Start menu was replaced by a Start screen, an awkward Desktop mode, hot corners that weren't intuitive, an uneasy mixture of the new Settings app and the old Control Panel.

Users who had grown accustomed to Windows 7 now suddenly didn't know where to go or what to do to accomplish their tasks in Windows 8. Consumers didn't have the interest or patience to learn something new. And businesses had neither the time nor the money to train employees on a different operating system. In the end, Windows 8 was a bust with consumers and corporations alike. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft tried to fix some of the flaws by throwing in a Start button and a more usable Desktop mode, but the damage was done.

SEE: More from our Decade in Review series (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

Windows RT

As if Windows 8 by itself wasn't enough of a dud, at the same time Microsoft introduced a companion, scaled-down version of Windows targeted toward tablets and other lower-powered devices. Designed for the 32-bit ARM architecture, Windows RT was an attempt to run a lighter version of Windows that didn't require the power of a hefty CPU and the x86 architecture. At the time, Apple's ARM-based iPad was gaining traction, so Microsoft needed a competing operating system and device in the form of its Surface RT tablet. But in designing Windows RT, Microsoft again failed to account for the needs of its customers.

First, Windows RT made it difficult (if not impossible) for users to run their favorite applications. Beyond the core built-in apps, the OS steered you to Metro-based apps that you had to download from the Windows Store, which at the time didn't offer a huge selection of software.

Windows RT did provide a Desktop mode as an afterthought, but one that limited you to only certain Microsoft applications such as Office and Internet Explorer. If you wanted to install a third-party legacy desktop program such as Adobe Photoshop, sorry, you were out of luck. And even then, trying to use traditional desktop programs like Office on a touch-based RT tablet was an exercise in futility.

Introducing Windows 8 and Windows RT at the same time was also a mistake. Consumers had a hard time trying to figure out the differences between the two, and Microsoft did a poor job attempting to explain the advantages of one versus the other.

A few vendors got on the bandwagon by releasing Windows RT-based tablets, but with little success, especially in competition with low-priced Windows 8 tablets and the iPad. Microsoft's Surface RT tablet also floundered, forcing the company to take a $900 million write-off on unsold inventory. The last Windows RT tablet was the Nokia Lumia 2520, which Microsoft was selling after it acquired Nokia's Lumia lineup. But in 2015, Microsoft pulled the plug on that device, essentially closing the door on Windows RT.

Windows Phone

Microsoft has a reputation for being late to the mobile market, but that's not quite true. In 1996, years before the iPhone and Android phones, Microsoft was dabbling with Windows CE for embedded devices. Windows CE eventually morphed into Windows Mobile in 2003, which eventually morphed into Windows Phone in 2010.

Windows Phone was by no means a bad operating system; in fact, it earned kudos for its design, speed, customization, and cool features such as Live Tiles. The devices that ran Windows Phone, most notably the Nokia Lumia lineup, were lauded for their displays, colors, cameras, price tags, and more. But Microsoft's efforts were too little, too late.

As iPhones and Android phones came to dominate the mobile market, Microsoft had trouble attracting device makers and app developers to the Windows Phone. Retail stores and wireless carriers made little effort to push Windows Phone compared with iOS and Android; as a result, customers saw no compelling reasons why they should choose a Windows Phone device. 

A Reddit user who claims to have been a Nokia engineer recently cited several of his own reasons for the failure of Windows Phone. Underestimating Google was one factor, especially as the search giant played hardball by blocking Windows Phone access to such popular apps as YouTube and Google Maps. Another problem was that people lumped Windows Phone together with Windows 8, thumbing their noses at both.

Microsoft's reputation was another factor, as people who grew up hating the company were now working on other platforms, according to the purported engineer. And by 2014, most mobile users were firmly in the iOS or Android camp, so there was no incentive to try a different platform.

Microsoft eventually acquired the Lumia lineup from Nokia as part of a last ditch effort to grab the third spot in the mobile arena. But the company continued to see its small share of the market drip away, prompting it to officially retire Windows Phone in 2017. Since then, Microsoft has focused on creating apps and services for iOS and Android. The company is planning a new mobile phone in another year known as the Surface Duo, but it will be running Android.

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