(Corrects spelling of Microsoft spokesman's name in 6th paragraph.)
On June 22, 2000, a few months after Steve Ballmer took over as CEO of Microsoft, the company summoned several hundred reporters and analysts to a conference center at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Ballmer, under pressure from a U.S. antitrust case and super-hot dot-com rivals, was set to unveil his company's vision for the future of computing.
I sat in a packed room as Microsoft held a daylong series of sessions during which the company announced what it called the .NET strategy. To regain its place within the vanguard of personal computing, Ballmer's Microsoft promised to deliver an interconnected set of Web services that could serve up relevant information to users across multiple devices and let them share with family, friends and co-workers. In a statement then, Ballmer said Microsoft would create a "unified platform through which devices and services cooperate with each other."
Microsoft filmed a bunch of concept videos to illustrate its product ideas. You can watch an edited version of the videos at the top of this post. Cheesiness aside, it's pretty spot-on, no? There's personalized content for each family member synchronized across PCs, televisions, tablets, mobile phones and cars; location-aware devices that tell you when friends are nearby; photo-sharing; voice controls -- all years before Facebook, Foursquare, or Apple's iCloud and Siri.
More incredible than the foresight of these videos is how Microsoft failed to execute on nearly all of it. What went wrong? Well, lots of things.
Some of the ideas were simply before their time. Others became bogged down in internecine squabbles between Microsoft fiefdoms, and philosophical debates about whether to keep Windows at the center of this new world or to build a separate platform. And then, the dot-com bubble burst.
The Office group scrapped a planned Internet-based document service called NetDocs. Some of the Windows work in this area got derailed by the late-running train that was Longhorn (later renamed Vista). Microsoft's early tablet efforts failed, and the company didn't go back for more until Apple showed them the way. Peter Wootton, a spokesman for Microsoft, declined to comment.
Business users did get some of the promised technology. SharePoint and Lync provide project sharing, Internet voice calls and teleconferencing. But as Microsoft slapped the .NET name on a variety of products, very few of them fulfilled the initial promise of that first day.
Many of the people who worked on the effort left the company. Vic Gundotra and Mark Lucovsky wound up at Google. Paul Maritz, who led much of the planning for .NET, left just three months after Ballmer's big event in Redmond and eventually wound up as CEO of VMware. Now, industry watchers are suggesting Gundotra or Maritz as possible successors to Ballmer when he retires sometime in the next 12 months.
"Had the company executed on even a fraction of its vision, Microsoft wouldn't be out looking for a new CEO," said Charles Fitzgerald, a former Microsoft executive who worked on .NET.
Now, with Ballmer poised to step down after more than 13 years at the helm, Microsoft's acquisition of Finland-based Nokia's handset unit could help the company pull off its devices-and-services strategy. If that works, Microsoft may get another shot realizing what it promised in 2000.
Ballmer's Microsoft wasn't lacking for ideas; it was lacking execution. The videos live on not as a celebration of how prescient Ballmer's Microsoft was but as a testament to what could have been.