It has been long time coming, but one can see a new coherence and focus in Microsoft’s mobile strategy. After bumbling around with different products and code-names like Windows Smart Phone edition, and Windows Mobile and Windows Pocket PC 2003 etc, the Barons of Redmond have finally decided to lump it all together under one generic, but easy to remember moniker, Windows Mobile. “We are emphasizing Windows Mobile as device categories are coming together,” Scott Horn, a senior director in Microsoft’s Mobile and Embedded Devices Group told Infoworld. Nearly 90 percent of the code for Smartphone and Pocket PC is the same, he pointed out. And that is a good start.
With branding becoming clearer, it is also nice to see that Microsoft-powered phones have actually started to show up in the carrier line-ups. Cingular for instance, has announced three in last week, and expects to release more Microsoft phone in coming months. Motorola MPx 220, Siemens SX 66, and Audiovox SMT 5600 (aka ScooblePhone) are the ones live on the Cingular network. Verizon has two Microsoft-powered phones and Sprint one. T-Mobile has HP 6315. In the US, that is a good number of phones since for the longest time I thought Microsoft Phones were a figment of Bill Gates imagination.
It is the phones which are coming down the pike which make the future a little brighter for Microsoft. Take the XDA Mini, which is pretty sexy and even impressed Symbian bigot, Russell Beattie. Sure it is a PDA first and phone later, but still the form factor and the looks are attractive enough to convince some buyers.
Holding it your hand, the XDA II mini feels solid. It’s a bit heavy – about the same weight as my old Nokia 7650 – but a lot slimmer, which makes it feel nice in your hand. It gives off that same vibe an iPod does. Solid. The thing it really needs is a little slide out keypad or mini-keyboard and it’d be perfect. I love all the hardware specs of the phone: the screen size, the memory, the processor speed, the Bluetooth support, normal headphone jack, and I really like the fact that it has an SD-IO port in it. Though 3G would be nice, being able to plug in a SD WiFi card is pretty damn handy. Really, the only thing it needs is to get rid of the pen based UI.
Here in lies the rub. Microsoft OS is inherently built by a PC centric company. They can do a good keyboard, and they can do a good pen based device, but can they learn and adapt to the needs of real human beings – use of phone with one hand. Microsoft has some cultural baggage to deal with, I think. This is a company that loves to cram more in its OS, whereas phones are more minimalist. Lastly, Microsoft Mobile division has to disassociate itself from its PC roots and develop a more humane non-Windows like interface. Apparently, some of these issues are going to be addressed in the next edition of the OS, expected to be released soon.
So what does this all mean in the end? First, just like we saw Palm got squeezed out of the handheld/PDA business, we can expect a repeat in the compute-phone business. I think by end of 2005, Palm OS would be a very marginal player in the smart phone business, with Symbian garnering a dominant market share, Microsoft a distant but healthy second. And then the others. And if there is one takeaway from the recently concluded CES, Microsoft is not going to go away in the mobile and wireless business.