Microsoft, don't hang up on Windows Mobile, but do call for help

It hasn't been a good day for anyone working on Microsoft's Windows Phone team. This morning, IDC made the ridiculous prediction that the number of iPhone/iPod touch applications would triple to 300,000 by end of 2010. Later, here at Betanews, Carmi Levy slammed Microsoft's Windows mobile strategy.

Yes, Windows Mobile is down -- really low -- but the operating system isn't bad. The mobile OS is good at the core, meaning the kernel, and multitasks pretty well. It's the user interface and partner model that needs a makeover -- and awfully fast. Microsoft is quickly falling behind Apple and Google, but there's hope. Android is a bigger threat than anything Apple has got, because of competing licensing and partner models. Don't give up, Microsoft, but for frak's sake do get a move on.

For Microsoft's benefit I'll respond to IDC's prediction and then to Levy. My question of the hour: Who spiked the eggnog at IDC? Three hundred thousand iPhone apps? What are they drinking at IDC? There's simply no way that the iPhone/iPod touch ecosystem can support that many apps, unless there is huge application separation across geographies, cultures and languages.

Apple shouldn't want that many apps, and IDC had better be wrong. I will say that Apple app bloat would be wonderful for every competitor, including Microsoft. Too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing. Apps are already hard to find or differentiate at 100,000-plus. Triple the number would be beyond way too many.

Switching analysts, Levy writes:

With market share for Windows Mobile OS in freefall, vendors fleeing and its mindshare in meltdown, now is as good a time as any for the company to dive into a full-on re-think of its mobile strategy.
Or an exit from the market until it can figure out what makes the most sense.

He strongly emphasized:

After 13 years and countless kicks at the can, it's time for Microsoft to call it a day. Kill Windows Mobile, consolidate resources and skills from the shuttered unit as well as Danger and Zune -- which continues to impress with technically sophisticated offerings that languish on store shelves -- and pick one cohesive strategy.

I won't disagree with Levy about Windows Mobile's dire straights. Microsoft has fallen behind, and there's no sign of any catching up. But I would strongly recommend against Microsoft exiting the mobile phone market. There is simply too much at stake. Smartphones are poised to be the next big computing platform, and the handset replacement market will be huge. The global mobile handset install base is about 4 billion, according to industry statistics, or about four times the PC install base. More than 1 billion new handsets are sold every year.

Most of the handsets in use are not smartphones, which already are beginning to replace so-called dumbphones -- slowly at first but increasing numbers over the next three or four years. Nokia has the sales volume, with nearly 40 percent market share in dumbphones and smartphones, worldwide. Apple has the huge applications lead. Google seemingly picks up new Android licensees by the day. Android went from zero worldwide smartphone marketshare in third quarter 2008 to 3.5 percent share a year later. Meanwhile, Windows Mobile share declined during the same time period, to 7.9 percent from 11.1 percent.

History Repeats

What bugs me about Microsoft and Windows Mobile: It reminds me of Internet Explorer, which Microsoft let languish for years. There's a saying that history repeats. It's my observation this theory applies to organizations as well as people. Microsoft is repeating with Windows Mobile past mistakes made with IE -- and not demonstrating the initiative to do better. Is somebody living in denial up there in Redmond?

Microsoft won the browser wars in the late 1990s only later to abandon the territory. Browser development essentially ended with IE6 in 2001 and didn't pick up again until Mozilla released Firefox five years ago. Now, there is fierce browser competition, driven in part by search revenues; all the while, IE continues to bleed usage share even after two major releases.

According to Net Applications, in November, IE usage share was 63.62 percent, down from 67.88 Percent in July. By comparison, Firefox share was 24.72 percent, up from 22.47 percent, during the same time period. Safari: 4.36 percent and Chrome 3.93 percent. To reiterate, Net Apps data reflects usage and not market share, and many people tend to use multiple browsers.

There's more than corporate history repeating. Browsers are important to the burgeoning smartphone market, where Internet Explorer trails even more than Windows Mobile. Microsoft must change its ways now. Hanging up on the mobile market is a bad idea. Letting Apple or Google woo away developers is even dumber.

Perhaps it's time for Microsoft to call on partners for help. HTC already is nicely skinning Windows Mobile 6.5. The Windows Phone concept, with dedicated "Start" button, is a nice concept, but a Zune-like phone with a Microsoft brand or co-brand would be even better. A Nokia-Microsoft team could greatly benefit both companies. The point: Microsoft has to do something, and tomorrow is already too late.

I tell you this: If Microsoft loses the mobile market, it loses the future. Once again, and I'm exhausted from blogging this, I say that Microsoft must launch a mobile Manhattan Project. If not, it will be buyers of all categories, including enterprises, hanging up on Windows Mobile.

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