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Why Microsoft will likely keep its bronze medal in the mobile computing marathon

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I left Microsoft’s keynote at Build 2014 on Wednesday tired, but despite serious mountains to climb ahead of it, Microsoft showed me it has found new energy.

My weariness was likely a combination of a six-hour flight on Tuesday followed by the three-hour keynote the next day. Even as I stumbled out with the crowd, however, I could feel a sense of hope and accomplishment from the event: Microsoft introduced a wide range of improvements for the Windows family and if it had another three hours, I suspect it could have kept talking about new features and functions.

2014-04-02 10.02.31

With a product family as diverse as Windows, Windows Phone and the Xbox, it can’t be easy to tie everything together; yet that’s exactly what Microsoft is finally doing. And when Windows Phone first hit the scene, I suggested that a consistent experience between phones, tablets and desktops could help Microsoft. We’ll really get to test that theory over the coming months as the software updates arrive.

Microsoft(s msft) certainly deserved its day in the sun today. The company presented a coherent, message relevant to the current and future state of computing. It even shrugged off its legacy licensing model by eliminating the cost for Windows on handsets and on tablets with nine-inch or smaller screens. That’s a smart move as it could help hardware partners shift focus away from other platforms and boost market share.

At the end of the day, however, there are two elephants in the room: Apple(s aapl) and Google(S goog).

iOS and Android

In fact, I noted this in a message to my editor during today’s keynote, saying, “All of this would be impressive… if Apple and Google didn’t exist.” Once I left Moscone West and started to digest the details of what Microsoft announced, I realized that as good as the announcements were, they’re still largely the product of having to come from behind in the current mobile computing shift.

Don’t misunderstand me: Windows users will (and should) be cheered by today’s news.

Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 Cortana

They’ll get Cortana, a digital assistant that looks to rival Siri and Google Now; the app can even read your local email to surface contextual information. They’ll be able to buy a universal app that works on a PC and phone, similar to iOS apps that run on both iPhone and iPad. And a touch-friendly version of Office is in the works, following the recently released iPad for Office.

Developers will be happy too because they can easily turn their Windows apps into Windows Phone apps, or vice versa. That can broaden the potential audience for Windows applications across millions more devices. Also potentially helping put more Windows devices in the wild is the elimination of some Windows license fees for device makers. This too could help scale Windows as Microsoft climbs the mobile mountain.

But for all the positive developments I heard today, the point is clear: For the most part, Microsoft is again trailing other popular platforms and is still playing a game of “catch up” in many regards. Not all of them of course; the ability to run a Universal Windows App on my Xbox One sounds incredible and nobody is offering that.

windows 2

Still, the whole situation reminds me of several remarks made by Microsoft representatives I’ve spoken with over the past few years. The general thought is that this race isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. Stephen Elop, soon to be back on the Microsoft executive team, alluded that sentiment when I interviewed him in late 2011. And I agree with him and the other Microsofties.

But here’s the thing: If you’ve ever run a marathon — and I’ve run several — or watched one in detail, you’ll know that trying to catch up isn’t a winning strategy. Instead, one runner or a small select group of runners often run away from the pack early and dare the rest of the runners to keep up. This whittles down the competition quickly and in most cases, one of these pace-breakers win the race.

Unless one of the leaders falters badly, few marathons are won from behind. Right now Apple and Google own the gold and silver medals and there’s no sign of a slip up in the near future. While Microsoft put on a great show and is working hard to make it an honest race, there wasn’t much to suggest it would advance beyond the bronze in this event.

10 Responses to “Why Microsoft will likely keep its bronze medal in the mobile computing marathon”

  1. JamesSB

    Microsoft has already cracked the 5% market share. Also the Lumia 920 was a top selling phone when it came out, being one of the top 3 phones selling at AT&T.

  2. Mark Sprague

    Microsoft’s problem is that even if catches up – why would people switch?
    Everyone already either has an iTunes or Google Play account and lots
    of media/apps. It has to be something major to switch. Most people don’t
    like Bing and would miss major native apps like Twitter.

    The real problem is that Microsoft is losing billions in mobile. Nokia can
    only sell the $50 phones – the high end ones don’t sell at all. The $50 phones
    cost Microsoft almost $80 to make – so they lose money on every phone.

    If they cannot crack the high end – there is no money to be had in mobile handsets.
    I don’t see Microsoft cracking the 5% market share. Especially when so many
    lower cost good quality Android phones are coming.

  3. I think one of the greatest threats on the horizon for Windows Phone is the Chromecast. Seriously. When Google finalized the SDK, they purposely stopped new Windows Phone and Kindle Fire apps from working with it (only a basic function is enabled, which even the BBC doesn’t consider worth mentioning). If you believe as I do that the casting paradigm is the future of television in the living room, then Google is about a year away from completely dominating the living room once enough apps support the Chromecast. At the next CES, TVs are going to be announced with Google Cast, and you better believe we are not far from the day when customers begin asking, “But can this phone cast to my TV?” And the answer will be, “Not if it’s a Windows Phone. Let me show you one that can…”

    Frankly, I think Microsoft should be in crisis mode. Their current strategy is to only sell $500 boxes for the living room. That strategy needed to end yesterday. If I was Microsoft, I would take the following steps to stop Google or some other company from not only dominating the living room, but using that leverage to shut them out of mobile:
    1. Buy Roku. This immediately adds a large install base among the streaming community to the Xboxes already out there.
    2. Update all Rokus and Xboxes with Freedom Cast (alongside the current OS), an open source version of Google Cast that supports iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Kindle Fire, Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Windows Apps, everything. Also porn.
    3. Release a Freedom Cast dongle that matches the Chromecast on price and functionality.
    4. Since Freedom Cast should be pretty much identical to the Google Cast, getting app developers that support the Chromecast to add support for the Roku/Xbox install base shouldn’t be difficult.
    5. Aggressively court TV manufacturers with Freedom Cast, using it’s expanded compatibility and Open Source nature as selling points.

    Google didn’t buy Android to become a smartphone OS developer, it bought Android to stop Apple from dominating mobile and potentially cutting them out in the future. Microsoft is facing a very similar situation that requires a very similar strategy. I expect that at Google I/O Google will introduce voice control functionality similar to what Kinect and Amazon were demonstrating, accessible from Android Wear or Google Now on a smartphone. TWC and others will add support to their EPG apps. The arguments for a $500 set top box, or even a $100 one, will slowly evaporate as more and more functionality moves to the phone/tablet. If that smartphone cannot be a Windows Phone or tablet, then those devices are headed for trouble.

    • I will add that Google bought Android before the iPhone came out, so I was incorrect stating that was the reason. I think they wanted to stop any company from shutting them out, it just switched from Microsoft to Apple after the release of the iPhone.

  4. This argument ignores history completely. Up to the very late 90s, the gaming console market was dominated by Sony and Nintendo, with Sega bringing up the rear. When MS popped up with the Xbox, they were nearly laughed out of the room. Over a decade later, Sony and MS dominate console gaming in terms of developers and public consciousness, while Sega (hardware) is dead and Nintendo is practically irrelevant.

    This didn’t happen because the competition stumbled, it happened because Xbox Live made MS console greater than the sum of its parts. I’m very sure the same will be the case with MS’ “write once, run everywhere” strategy.

    • Good thoughts here. I actually do think the video game leaders faltered though: They did incremental updates while Sony and Microsoft reinvented video gaming platforms with added features and design choices the others didn’t do. Essentially, Sony and Microsoft leap-frogged the competition. From that respect, I didn’t see or hear anything from Microsoft this week that does the same.

      Clearly debatable, of course, and time will tell. ;) Thanks!

  5. Corrupted Mind

    I think you’ve taken the wrong lessons from marathon running as almost any runner will tell you there is nothing more dangerous in marathon running than running your competitors race. More importantly, I think the marathon metaphor is used by Microsofties to denote that it’s a long rather than short race. Also, you say it’s impossible to win from behind but that is what Google has done twice (with phones and tablets). My own view is that Microsoft is finally a company which looks like it has something to say about the future, it has a vision any non technical person can understand and relatively appealing products. The question now is can it innovate, execute and compete.

  6. Walker

    I agree, but I also think that what is shown here is what they needed to keep up the slow catchup they are showing. Maybe they never pass google or Apple, but I think they should now be able to pull up with in appreciable distance. Compared to now looking only like an also ran. Their only claim to 3rd is that there is really no one else. This gives them a fighting chance to eventually break the 10% market share they need for any credibility.

  7. Shameer Mulji

    I disagree. What MS showed today was very impressive and has all the places to take, at least silver, if not gold. They deserve credit.