Blog Post

How Microsoft Can Get Back in the Mobile Game

LG says it’s betting heavily on Android (s goog) to help the handset maker build its smartphone business, a move that contrasts starkly with last year’s vow to make Microsoft’s (s msft) Windows Mobile its primary operating system. But in doing so, LG joins a small army of fellow manufacturers that have shifted their focus away from Microsoft’s mobile OS — among them HTC , Sony Ericsson (s sne) (s eric), Motorola (s mot) and Palm (s palm) — and, with the lone exception of Palm, toward Android. And the revelation comes on the heels of rumors that the launch of Windows Mobile 7 may be pushed back yet again, to 2011.

In the meantime, as the mobile skies continue to darken over Redmond, we’ve compiled a few ideas that could get Microsoft back in the game:

  • Make Windows Mobile free to manufacturers. That’s a strategy our friend Chetan Sharma examined more than a year ago; since then Microsoft has continued to lose market share as open-source OSes gain traction in mobile. Making WinMo free — but not open source — might encourage some manufacturers to at least reconsider moving away from the platform.
  • Acquire (or adopt) another operating system and ditch WinMo. Building a mobile OS from the ground up is a Herculean task, but Microsoft has the deep pockets to pick up a newer platform and throw WinMo on the scrap heap. While rumors of a takeover of RIM (s rimm) seem outrageous given the price tag, Microsoft could pick up Palm’s (s palm) webOS for substantially less. And while Microsoft has historically feared Linux — upon which webOS is based — it last year began indicating it may be softening its stance regarding open-source software.
  • Build a top-notch app store designed for business users. Consumer-focused mobile app stores have quickly become a kind of Moroccan bazaar where users are confronted with a dizzying number of offerings on the cheap. Microsoft — like RIM — could set its Marketplace for Mobile apart from the crowd by combining high-end enterprise and productivity apps with a small library of the best entertainment titles.
  • Make Windows Mobile 7.0 a worthy competitor with a focus on the enterprise. Mobile malware is sure to cause more problems as the popularity of the iPhone (s appl) and Android-based devices continues to surge. In addition to making WinMo more user-friendly, Microsoft should position it as an ultra-secure platform designed to ensure the safety of mobile data for high-end executives. To sweeten the deal, maybe it should give out a free golf shirt with every WinMo device sold.

As we’ve said before, it may simply be too late for Windows Mobile to re-emerge as anything but a niche play for a small number of business users. If the gang in Redmond has begun taking mobile seriously, though, it should consider some of these ideas as a way to regain relevance in the increasingly competitive smartphone space.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: As Windows Mobile Stumbles, Which Smartphone OS Will Seize the Lead?

25 Responses to “How Microsoft Can Get Back in the Mobile Game”

  1. I don’t see the connection between Microsoft taking a softened stance on open source and it adopting a linux OS. The two are unrelated. Microsoft has started to support some open source projects… windows projects. The idea that they would buy any linux based products without the intent of transitioning towards windows is ludicrous. wasn’t powerset based on linux technologies before Microsoft bought it and turned it into bing?

  2. JJ: “It’s too late. By 2011 Google, Apple and RIMM will dominate” – they’d have to go some. Symbian dominates by quite a stretch and is renewing itself rapidly.

  3. On reflection, the last 10 years have been somewhat of a dissapointment for Microsoft. They are typical of a company that has grown huge by satisfying a niche market. Lets face it, as the PC market developed in the mid 80’s through into the 90’s, MSDOS and then Windows were pretty much the only offerings and virtually compulsary.

    This is what bought about the giant, but in evolving into this massive company they became complacent. They have had a lot of money coming in over the years with every PC sold including a license and hence a kick back to Microsoft. Their growth has made them become a huge dinosaur that is slow to react and cumbersome in its approach to innovate.

    I started out in the tech industry in the 80’s and have watched them grow from nothing. I used to be quite proud of Microsft and Bill Gates becuase Tech was my industry and they were making all the money which was different to the previous norm of industrial, fuel and finance companies.

    Microsoft filled a requirement for me back in the begining providing me a useful GUI interface and applications but as they raked in the money, that interface has got bloated and cumbersome like the company. They have driven me away and I have no respect for the company whatsoever anymore!

    There are many die hard Microsoft fans out there, that flame people like me for telling our experiences but rather than get on their high horse and rant blindly against a post like mine, they would do well to re-read and realise that this is a honest opinion by someone who has (in the majority of cases) generally used Microsoft for far longer than themselves! Think about the last 20 years like I have and wonder if someone like myself who has become dissolutioned, just might have a point!

    Remember Microsoft’s growth has largly been via monopoly of the PC Operating System. In the early days they only had to fight off the likes of IBM’s OS/2 and after that they were too mass market for people to make a dent.
    That means for a significant period of time, they have done little innovation with the core business, instead, they have diversified into other markets like gaming because they could see another fast buck to be made.

    The deeper you look, the more you notice Microsoft’s history of success has been simply being in the right place at the right time for Operating System market, followed by other area’s where-by their name has made people think along the lines of “it should be ok, its Microsoft”.

    I have to applaud other companies that have competed with Microsoft in recent years. Any company that has done that has done so by merit and deserves respect for it. Think about it, they would have had to do so by making software or products good enough and with enough appeal in order to fight the huge mountain that is a customers comfort zone! Thats no mean feat!

    I honestly think its too late for Microsoft mobile too. Although Microsoft were early adopters, they failed to capitalise. If you’ve read what I said earlier, Microsoft is not used to competeing in idustries where there are already established leaders, historically they have grown by being niche or through their name but if people didin’t buy into the Microsoft Mobile thing before, when the only decent smartphone was something like the blackberry, why would they now when the smartphone range is far more extensive with manufacturer’s already well ahead offering great open and closed platforms. Exactly where does Microsoft fit in here with yet another platform be it closed or miraculously transformed into an open solution??

  4. Colin Gibbs

    Wow, that’s a very broad spectrum of opinions. I’m surprised to see how much faith some people have in Microsoft’s mobile vision after years of disappointment. But I do think it’s too early to write them off completely — they obviously have the resources to come back strong in the space. But that will require a complete change not just in strategy but in philosophy. And I’m not sure Redmond is capable of that.

    • Colin,
      They have the phone with the best hardware (though its made by HTC). I am sure they are thinking this mobile strategy to leapfrog everyone.
      Their phones are powerful but unstable yet times.
      Besides they are probably the only platform that interact very well with the WIndows 7 desktop OS. Throw in Xbox integration, you are now talking a desktop+Mobile+TV convergence strategy.
      Add Bing and Yahoo to the mix , now they look like they can run longer(may not be faster :) ) than competition .

      Also I forgot , their majority stake in Facebook can be put to good use.

    • Anonymous

      I am sure Microsoft understands that Mobile Phones are already the leading computing devices. As Gartner projected, internet access from Mobile phones will exceed that from PCs. So, if Microsoft wants to have a future, they have to be competitive in Mobile phones too and I have faith that they will adopt.

  5. I think Microsoft just needs to stop making fat apps and just slim up what they have experience on, as far as usage. I think we are so use to Microsoft that we take what they have accomplished for granted when considering new things and the differences they offer.

  6. Good article.
    I agree with Point 2 and 3. WinMo is a seriously powerful OS. It is so powerful that from Walmart inventory person to Comcast cable technicians use in on their phones.
    The problem is with he mainstream folks. They are impressed by APPLE,RIMM.

    Microsoft should focus on business in a big way and lock the business revenues for a long time.
    On the consumer front, a refreshed UI, third party browser support would help ( they are the only platform that supports more than three mobile browsers SkyFire, Opera Mobile, Opera mini with JAVA runtime, IRIS, Netfront, Dorothy and Fennec too)

  7. Whom are they competing against Google or Apple?

    While this seem right from a data analysis point of view. Which Microsoft might actually follow. This will just get them a spot behind Google.

    If you organize your iTunes library do you think about Files in Directories, or Songs in Playlists?

    From my point of view the next abstraction to go to make Computers easier and more useful is the Dir/Files metaphor.

    Apple solves problems by providing new abstractions, which neither Google nor Microsoft seem capable of. I don’t think they are done just yet, there is no smart in any smart phone. So Microsoft from their current analysis capabilities can maybe do something to become an also run No.3 but that’s it. Since Google seems a little better at data analysis.

    I mean buying Palm and then what? Suddenly they understand to think in abstractions? Or let’s test every last bit of blue, before we can decide. Only that kind of analysis doesn’t get you out of the box, it only works if you don’t compete against a company which has a different way of thinking :-).

  8. Microsoft can leverage a developer advantage to get back in the mobile game. Windows Mobile 7 can rely on Silverlight and it’s mature development tools (with basic versions already available free) to allow developers to quickly and easily create lots of very rich applications–if they can just release Windows Mobile 7 before it’s too late.

  9. It’s cute that you think the above may get MS back in the game. There problems are rooted far deeper than what appears to a casual observer … the arrogance, lack of vision and foresight has lead MS to this point and they cannot buy their way out of this.

    Not sure what the remedy, if there is one, but it certainly is not what you’ve listed above.

    By the way, I wonder if their enterprise customers are about to give up on MS too and start looking elsewhere (RIM), if not already, as they keep pushing back WinMo 7 that is now about 4-5 years late. I mean, no one’s faith is that strong … is it?

  10. Anonymous

    Not a Palm user.I’m Malaysian so that means 10 years from now (probably?) before I’ll even get to see that sweet sweet Pre Plus gets launched on this side of the pond.Joe Wilcox of Betanews wrote the same thing about how MS should get Palm.I don’t get that/this?How desperate are Palm really at this moment or is this just speculation cooked up to force them into that corner?

  11. Katie Mansfield

    Building an OS is not Herculean if you adopt an off-the-shelf Linux kernel, and build on top of it.

    Palm did this with webOS, which is based on Linux. Palm put its proprietary interface on top, and got it to market in a bit over a year, and “boom”, a new phone platform, at a fraction of the cost of Microsoft’s failed efforts.

  12. No, no, no.

    This is a fight to let people have their data everywhere, and seamlessly. So MS should:
    * Make hosted Exchange nearly free. They should have done this years ago. If the don’t, Apps will take all.
    * Expand Exchange to sync personal data (photos, video, work files, etc.)
    * Write Exchange sync into every cell phone OS, or push out better apps than Touchdown.
    * Make the broader data sync work better in WinMo than anywhere else.
    * Yes, make WinMo free.
    * Make their own WinMo phone, like Google is doing, to show how the whole system works when carriers don’t hobble it in one way or another.
    * Have a 2-tier app store. Safe ones are closely vetted by MS. The Wild West part of the store lets anyone screw up their phones (and make WinMo able to identify, quarantine and easily remove badly-performing apps).
    * Buy RingCentral and do Google Voice one better, then integrate it into their phones.

  13. Anonymous

    Are you serious? I myself have not been a recent fan of ‘Windows Phone’. Please don’t think that microsoft is sitting back sleeping on all of the major hitters out there. I believe that they will shock everyone when they do eventually release windows mobile 7.

  14. MSInsider

    The reason is that the danger team is really messing things up. Do you remember when the sidekick went down in Nov 2009? It was the danger team in palo alto. Supposedly, this short guy Jaime Rosenberg leads the group and telling developers things that he has no idea on. Check out the number of developers. They have another cat- Natasha Bock who is trying to recruit developers and she is a joke. Give it one more year and Balmer will pull the plug.

  15. Microsoft needs to create the best mobile operating system to get back in the mobile game.

    MS needs to create a vision for the mobile phone – this needs to be a 5 or 10 year vision – and then execute relentlessly for the next decade accepting nothing less than excellence.

    This is what Apple did and it is what MS needs to do. I’m not suggesting the Vision should be the same – in fact it must be different.

    The important thing is to see the completed puzzle and then put the pieces into place. It will be a long, slow road to make this happen but it is the right way. Microsoft will be behind in the mobile space for a number of years but they can catch up and surpass the competition.

    Microsoft has the resources, but do they have the vision and discipline to make this happen?

  16. Regarding your second bullet point:

    Microsoft owns Danger, the makers of the Sidekick. Danger is coming out with a new phone that’s said to be BETTER than the Nexus One. I know the code name for it but I’m not telling. It’s starts with a “P”.

    You didn’t hear this from me.

  17. The Mobile Explorer. Very simply a browser that access back end functions like calls. It would be the reverse of Palm where an OS is the first layer accessed. Facebook would love it!

    The web is the future of mobile, and vice versa. All applications can very simply be widgets or full pages on a surface. I am actually prototyping something akin to this for a demo project, and while I am looking at the iPhone and applications, I consider them to be like web apps with more functionality. That extra step takes less effort, and requires something that MS loves, creating extensions to browser functionality.

    Seriously, a mobile browser that makes calls would be killer. That is Chrome in a nutshell.