Robbie Bach: Windows Mobile had a 'challenging year'

Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices division, today told Wall Street analysts that the company's mobile strategy would improve. He laid out Microsoft's go-forward mobile strategy during the annual Financial Analysts Meeting.

Bach acknowledged that Windows Mobile had "a challenging year," with market share declining even as unit numbers increased. The company is ramping up for Windows Mobile 6.5's official release in October. Whoa, Bach asserted that the browsing experience on Windows Mobile 6.5 would be better than iPhone.

"We have to do a better job executing...and operating our business," Bach said. Is that an understatement. I have repeatedly criticized Microsoft's mobile strategy as being weak.

Bach's presentation lacked a critically fundamental element: Software platform. Apple's App Store platform is hugely popular -- with over 1.5 billion applications downloads -- and gaining. He simply ignored the importance of mobile applications.

Bach laid out the broader mobile strategy in four areas: Choice and selection; end-user experience; cloud services; and brand marketing.

Choice and selection is Microsoft's response to Apple's single-vendor, hardware-software approach.
Earlier, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made clear that Microsoft planned to innovate with mobile software rather than make a phone. Google has similar strategy with Android.

The E&D president observed that Windows Mobile delivers a good business experience, but Microsoft has work to do for consumers. He rightly explained that converging lifestyles makes focus on both markets -- business and consumer -- essential.

"Our experiences are very good in the business space," but "our experiences are not as rich as they should be" in the consumer space, Bach said. Microsoft's mobile priority: "Taking our success in business...and expanding that across consumer scenarios."

But I'm troubled by his timing: "This is something that is going to play out over the next 3 to 5 years." Years? Apple has stormed the cell phone market in less than two years, and Google has made surprising gains in about one year. Microsoft doesn't have 3 to 5 years.

Bach also put the mobile strategy in context of "three screens in a cloud" -- PC, mobile phone and TV -- across social services. "Apple is very strong on the device side," but not as much in services. Google is stronger in the cloud, but not services. Microsoft can deliver in both areas, Bach asserted.

I'm rather stunned by the assertion. Apple has a surprisingly strong three-screen strategy with iPhone/iPod, Apple TV and Macs or Windows PCs. For example, movies purchased from the iTunes Store sync across the three screens, and resume play wherever stopped on whatever device. Then there is Google's Android, which offers strong cloud-to-mobile integration, certainly better than Windows Mobile today.

Bach simply ignores App Store, which is the preeminent mobile applications platform based on number of mobile apps available or downloaded. Surely, Microsoft knows that applications are fundamental to the success of any platform. So if Microsoft has a cloud-to-mobile device strategy, where are the applications? Once a mobile applications leader, Microsoft now trails recent upstarts. Once again, I strongly recommend that Microsoft embark on a mobile OS and browser Manhattan Project. The 3-to-5 year time horizon is way too long.

The E&D CEO ended by talking about branding, and this is encouraging. "We are going to invest and build on the brand" -- Windows Phone. That will happen with carriers and retailers and through actual marketing. My take: Windows Phone as a single brand is sensible.

"We're excited about Windows Mobile 6.5," he boasted during the first Q&A session.

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