Hanging up on Windows Mobile - TechCentral

Hanging up on Windows Mobile

Duncan McLeod

[By Duncan McLeod] Microsoft risks ceding the smartphone market. Its apparent decision to delay the release of Windows Mobile 7 could be the final nail in the coffin of its mobile ambitions. Given that computing is going mobile, that’s a big problem for the software maker.

At last year’s Mobile World Congress, the annual cellphone industry conference in Spain, I heard several journalists snickering not so quietly while Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled details of the then new Windows Mobile (WinMo) 6.5.

What they found amusing was that Ballmer was touting a new mobile phone operating system that already looked completely out of date. But Ballmer pressed on, bringing executives from cellphone companies like Taiwan’s HTC onto the stage to wax lyrical about the software.

WinMo 6.5 was never meant to be. The software’s next big upgrade, WinMo 7, was supposed to ship last year. However, when it was delayed until 2010, Microsoft announced 6.5 as a placeholder.

Now, in a move that could deal a death blow to Microsoft’s ambitions in the smartphone market, the company has reportedly delayed the release of the WinMo 7 until 2011.

WinMo 7 was expected to drag Microsoft out of the cellphone dark ages with a product that could finally compete with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s fast-growing Android. In the few short years that Google has been developing the Linux-based Android it has gained significant traction. Today, the software is available on a range of smartphones from manufacturers such as HTC, Motorola and Samsung.

Analysts say WinMo 7 is Microsoft’s last chance to save its mobile operating system business. The latest delay in the software’s release looks set to play directly into Google’s hands. Handset manufacturers are already indicating they’re likely to ditch WinMo in favour of Android. Reports suggest that this year some of them are preparing to sell handsets running Android that were originally meant to run WinMo 7.

It’s far from clear why Microsoft has been unable to develop a contemporary and compelling mobile operating system. Its new Windows 7 desktop software is top notch. Yet in mobiles the company seems lost.

For a company that has effectively controlled the market in computer operating systems for the past 25 years, the prospect of ceding the market to Google is a nightmare.

In developed markets, people routinely use desktop computers to access the Internet. But in developing countries, where PC penetration is low, billions of people will connect to the Internet for the first time using their mobile phones. By the end of this decade, almost everyone on the planet will be online — and most will be connecting via mobile devices of some form or description.

If Android is the software of choice for these devices, Google will have triumphed over its old adversary.

Even if Microsoft gets WinMo 7 right, it is probably going to have to rethink the way it does business: it may be forced to emulate Google and give away its operating system to handset manufacturers. For a company that makes its money selling software, that might seem heretical.

Google gives Android away hoping to monetise its online services, such as search and e-mail, through advertising.

The problem with this model for Microsoft is that its online applications are poorly developed compared with Google’s. Its Windows Live Mail service, for instance, is a poor quality product compared to Google’s Gmail.

When Ballmer takes to the stage again in Spain next month, he’ll have to pull a rabbit out of his hat if he’s to stop another round of guffawing from impolite tech journalists.

  • McLeod is editor of TechCentral; this column is also published in the Financial Mail

7 Comments

  1. Good piece that displays the uphill battle that Microsoft has ahead.

    You can only make sub-par software (compared to what Mac and Google are doing), and ship it late, for so long.

    So long, Microsoft. We won’t miss you

  2. Doom and gloom op-ed articles about Windows Mobile, identical to this one, have been around for about two years now – what’s new here? Everyone knows that Microsoft has to score big with WM7 in Barcelona next month, but there is no reason to doubt (with all the time they took getting it done) that they won’t. I think you’re right about the cost of the operating system to OEMs, though – that Android is free to manufacturers is a fundamentally different business model and a huge differentiator.

    Johann: speak for yourself. I welcome any competitors in the space that can push the boundaries; it’s good for consumers. Your obvious feelings of ill will toward Microsoft are probably misplaced, by the way. News flash: Apple and Google are mega-corporations too.

  3. Agree with Johann that MS has a huge up hill battle with WinMobile, however it is not just about the quality of the software, they are competing on price with Adroid (being free) and reputation (which is shot).

    What is missing from your article, and maybe because it is just a rumour at this stage, is Project Pink; which is the new phone OS (and maybe device) from MS based off the Zune platform.

    I think that has some potential to solve this for two reasons
    1 – The reputation of WinMo doesn’t come into play. Sure there is some damage to carry over but in no way as bad as just another WinMo version.
    2 – Technically it is easier to build up on a platform designed for mobile devices and add the phone features than it is to strip down OS designed for more feature rich devices (like computers, tablets etc…). This should mean that the OS starts off better.

  4. Matthew French on

    I wouldn’t write Microsoft off just yet. They have a huge war chest, and in the past have had no problems poaching entire development teams from more successful projects.

    WindowsMobile could well disappear for a couple of years, and then return with something that takes over the SmartPhone market.

    Of course they could also decide to close the entire Windows Mobile project, but losing and giving up are two terms that don’t seem to be in Microsoft’s vocabulary. (Some of us might add that “reliable”, “intuitive” and “pleasure to use” are also not in their vocabulary. But that is missing the point.)

  5. Actually, there have been recent reports that Apple’s warchest of cash reserves is now bigger than Microsoft’s.

    Microsoft is finished in mobile.

    Because it is late to market (with a modern touch-phone interface), it must now produce a product vastly better than the more popular competitors. Otherwise nobody will migrate from those other more popular platforms.

    Momentum is the other thing. As the article said, handset OEMs have been rushing away from Windows Mobile, and are all in the process of phasing it out. Momentum is going against Microsoft.

    Critically, developers have deserted Windows Mobile. Nobody is writing new apps for it. The market place is barren. That’s the hallmark of a dead platform. Just like the OEMs, Microsoft will have an impossible task attracting developers back to its revised but unproven platform. Momentum is hard to reverse.

    Who knows what effect the coming Windows Mobile 7 will have on sales of existing handsets running Windows Mobile 6.5 (or soon 6.6). I think sales of 6.x handsets will crash. Who wants to buy a Windows Mobile handset on a soon-to-be-discontinued platform?

    Microsoft is finished in mobile. It’ll keep its desktop monopoly, but it has lost the mobile market forever.

  6. Its a pity that Microsoft have been left in the dark age. They did well with pc’s.

    Although If this gives the opportunity for new technology to arise then its a good thing. I use my mobile a lot for net and email as I have an Unlimited $45 monthly package from Straight Talk. I get unlimited data, minutes and messages so who ever can give me the best softwear well make me happy.

  7. I still have a soft spot for windows mobile; I havent used it for ages because after using it for over a decade with no real UI updates, it was game over for me, I tried out the iphone which was great for 2+ years, and am now on Android – HTC Hero, which I like less and less every day. But I still use winmo in my job now and then (tytn2) – it’s still a great OS/device to be productive on.

    Yes, it’s UI is vomit-worthy and dated, but when you stack it up against the alternatives – Iphone OS (the lack of multitasking highlights how technically challenged the core is), Android (sluggish due to its Java roots) and Symbian (to Nokia’s credit they do update it, but it seems to get worse each release) – it’s still in the running.

    It’s annoying that MS totally ignored the UI, after Apple made it quite clear that’s how to win the hearts of users – technical details mean very little if you slap a pretty face on it. It’s almost as if Apple released the Iphone and MS said “wow, that’s a really amazing UI, we have to do something. Let’s take a nap. For 3 years.”

    I’m hoping that winmo7 brings it back into contention, and either MS or a 3rd party better port webkit to it ASAP, as that’s where the future of mobile apps seems to be, with all the other OSes having webkit browsers, it’s the one thing that developers can count on to make cross-platform apps. The IE-Mobile on winmo is one of the biggest things holding it back.