Otto Berkes with an UltraMobile PC in 2006. (Microsoft photo)

Long before Apple introduced the iPad, Otto Berkes and his team at Microsoft were working on devices called UltraMobile PCs that combined touch screens with a portable slate design. Introduced five years ago, they were too expensive and the technology wasn’t ready for mass adoption.

But it’s tough not to imagine what they could have become — and how Microsoft would be positioned against the iPad — if the company had stuck with it.

Berkes, an 18-year veteran of Microsoft and the last Xbox founder who remained at the company, confirmed this afternoon that he is leaving the company, as first reported by the Seattle Times earlier today. He worked most recently as a partner hardware architect for Microsoft Bing, focused on the evolution of the data center and the hardware infrastructure that powers web searches.

When we caught up today, Berkes was upbeat when I asked for his thoughts on Microsoft and his own future.

“I feel good about both,” he said. “I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for Microsoft and for its accomplishments and its capabilities.  I am very proud of the work that I did at Microsoft and the fact that I was able to make contributions in different areas.  It’s been a pleasure working with so many smart, dedicated, and driven people. I’m also really excited to take on some new challenges.”

But how does he feel watching what Apple has done with the iPad?

“It’s been bittersweet,” he said. “It certainly validated the notion of having a truly touch-centric, connected computing device, but I obviously wish that Microsoft had gotten there first. … The concepts were certainly all there, but the investment level required and the clarity of focus on that class of product was not what it needed to be to achieve the kind of commercial success that Apple has achieved with the iPad.”

Berkes plans to work for another company, based in California, but he isn’t saying yet which one.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    This really makes one wonder how many other great ideas are percolating around within MS that will never see the light of day.  I hope they learn from this – there’s no reason Apple should have been first to market with this…

    Otto cites “investment level” and “clarity of focus” as the barriers.  MS has always had plenty of cash.  So I guess it boils down to focus.  

    Unless the culture changes within MS to allow these sorts of innovations to come to fruition, they’ll continue to function much like the technology department of a vocational college – a playground for smart people to create and experiment – while smart people elsewhere create similar things that ultimately arrive on the shelves of retailers…..

    • LD

      “Clarity of focus” is code for, too many cooks all competing, no single idea wins.
      That happens often in MS.
      One of the reasons why WinMo became WinPhone after losing market share to Apple’s iPhone.
      At least Kinect managed to fight its way above water to become reality…

    • http://gatesvp.blogspot.com Gaëtan Voyer-Perrault

      Microsoft is absolutely filled with great ideas. Often those ideas are “too far ahead of the curve” or “can’t be delivered fast enough”. Both of which he mentions.

      I remember my first smart phone, it was an MS product. I had it two years before the iPhone ever landed. Apple actually trimmed a bunch of the functionality MS had put in so that the product would be a little more usable. But MS clearly had it first (rounded corners and all).

      The UMPC pictured above was the predecessor to the tablet. Again, clearly a great idea. In fact, check out the two thumb on-screen keyboard they pioneered. I would argue this is far better than current smart phone layouts. But again, MS was too early in the curve.

      Then there’s DropBox. Great idea right? Everyone has a copy now: Apple iCloud, Google Drive,Amazon Cloud Drive. Thing is, MS actually had two of these products: SkyDrive and Live Mesh. The former was just a storage bin, the latter had synchronization & some cool remote desktop features. They have now been merged to support Office Live.

      SkyDrive launched within months of DropBox first existing, but it never had an API and did not work on as many platforms as DropBox.

  • Robbie

    Yeah, right.  Give this guy the credit when the Pen Windows pioneers are all dead and gone.  Now THAT was a tablet…

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottmoore.seattle Scott Moore

    “It’s been bittersweet,” he said. “It certainly validated the notion of
    having a truly touch-centric, connected computing device, but I
    obviously wish that Microsoft had gotten there first. … The concepts
    were certainly all there, but the investment level required and the
    clarity of focus on that class of product was not what it needed to
    be to achieve the kind of commercial success that Apple has
    achieved with the iPad.”

    And yet Microsoft spent $6.2 billion on a failure and wrote that down this last year as a loss. This is the problem with Microsoft, it wants to buy winning technology, but it won’t invest fully in its own ideas, despite having mountains of cash.

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