Will the Mobile World Push Microsoft to Irrelevancy?

by Chris Seibold Mar 09, 2009

For years Linux and Apple fans have been waiting for that cosmic moment wherein either Linux or OS X suddenly goes mainstream and removes Microsoft as the dominant force in the land of personal computers. That isn't likely to happen. You can come up with tortured examples, Netscape used to rule the browser market just to see the lead completely evaporate, but the examples never compare a firmly established overlord being taken down by a marginal competitor. Microsoft is firmly enthroned as king of the computer world and that isn't going to change. That isn't really a surprise is it? The lead is just too large and Microsoft is simply too entrenched.

On the other hand, dominance in one area doesn't necessarily lead to dominance in associated areas. Take the iPod and iTunes combo. When the iPod first came out people thought it was nifty, when the iTunes store opened people were impressed. Throughout the early days of iPod success there was a feeling among most people that Microsoft could, at an arbitrary time of the companies choosing, jump into the game and eradicate the iPod. The reasoning was simple, Microsoft could build nifty stuff into Windows and give people a better experience. Ask the folks at WordPerfect about the OS advantage.

As the iPod grew in market dominance it turned out that the mobile entertainment enterprise was a game that Microsoft wanted be in. The company tried hard to compete. First, it coupled with hardware partners, then Microsoft foisted PlaysForSure on a skeptical public and finally revealed the Zune that uses a nearly identical model that used for the iPod/iTunes combo. The naked aping of iPod/iTunes hasn't turned out well for Microsoft.

This brings us to Windows Mobile. Recently apps for the iPhone passed the number of apps available for Windows Mobile. If you've got an iPhone you now have 25,000 + apps from which to choose, Windows Mobile users have to muddle through with a few apps less. Hooray, a meaningless statistic in favor of the iPhone, after all 75% of iPhone apps are aimed at the highly lucrative fart sound market. The prevalence of useless apps noted, perhaps the statistic isn't completely meaningless. While the number of quality apps in the App Store is likely less than the number of truly useful apps for Windows Mobile Devices the fact that the developer community has embraced the iPhone platform so willingly spells bad news for Microsoft in the Mobile OS department because it means developers are happy to abandon Microsoft if the monetary rewards lie elsewhere. And what does that do to Microsoft's developers, developers, developers strategy?

That isn't the worst of the news for Microsoft when it comes to the Mobile OS world. While Steve Ballmer recently said the only OSes gaining traction with hardware manufacturers in the mobile world were Android and Windows mobile he told the truth but not the rest of the story. Citing Android was an easy thing to do, Android has a smallish market share and doesn't seem like a credible threat to Microsoft at this moment. More importantly by citing Android Steve Ballmer was able to dodge the question of Symbian in the mobile space. Symbian (Open source, not linux, used by Nokia) a powerful competitor worldwide which controls some 40% of the smartphone market. By restricting his comments to hardware manufacturers he was also able to side step two other competitors: RIM and Apple. 

If you look at the market objectively you'll note Microsoft is in fourth place and that is somewhere Microsoft isn't used to being. But it is worse than that. While fourth place seems like a profitable place to stand you don't hear anyone excited about Microsoft's offerings for cell phones. People will talk up Android and OS X Mobile but whenWindowsMobile enters the room the conversation quickly dies. The path from here to obscurity for Windows Mobile is a short one.

So where is Microsoft going wrong? Microsoft is going at it the same way the company went about dominating the computer market. Try to control the manufacturers and convince them to only use Windows Mobile. Great idea but Apple and RIM aren't going to be jumping on the Windows Mobile bandwagon. Neither is Nokia who powers its phones with Linux. Microsoft isn't controlling the biggest manufacturers of smart phones so the company can't exert the same control that it holds in the computer arena. Microsoft is also unable to build the consumer demand or Windows Mobile. People really wanted XP but because of the nature of phones and because of corporate missteps no one cares if Windows Mobile powers their phone.

This is a tough situation for Microsoft and chances are that Windows Mobile will never be the force of Windows for computers. Without ubiquity Microsoft loses what the company has relied upon as its largest competitive advantage. Without that advantage is it reasonable to expect Windows Mobile to dominate?

If Windows Mobile doesn't dominate Microsoft could be in some serious trouble. Recall that the rail industry biggest failure was seeing themselves as railroad companies instead of delivery companies. When Fed Ex and UPS came along the rail companies didn't see them as competition even thought that is exactly what they were. So the rail companies are (pun coming) still (pun almost here) chugging along but they aren't the market forces they could've been. Microsoft is at that moment right now. Either the company has to get a laser sharp focus on Windows Mobile or risk becoming like the rail companies as consumer realize they don't really need the stand alone computer, they can do all they need with a smartphone. When that happens, Linux finally wins.



  • Just a quick fact correction: Nokia does not actually run any of their phones on Linux, but instead use a closed-source OS called Symbian, , which started as a collaboration between several companies, but which Nokia now own 100%. This OS also runs on a few other phones by different manufacturers; Sony Ericsson and the Samsung Innov8 are two which spring to mind.

    I can’t see Windows Mobile doing anything in the future, manufacturers have their own solutions, Apple is a viable competitor, Google is well… Google, and the internet is a big game-changer from the days of Windows 95. All this competition is a great thing, and will hopefully drive innovation. I think in a few years time, we’ll have a better idea of where the market is heading, but if Windows Mobile doesn’t pull something special out of the bag, it’s never going to be the dominant force in the mobile space.

    bob-bob had this to say on Mar 10, 2009 Posts: 12
  • quite right bob-bob. Thanks for the correction

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Mar 10, 2009 Posts: 354
  • Actually, the railroad companies jointly owned Railway Express Agency, which WAS a delivery company.  When I was a kid you would see the REA trucks making deliveries in the neighborhood.  REA and UPS and Parcel Post were it, as far as delivery companies went.  But REA went bust in the 1970s, for various reasons.


    dtnelson had this to say on Mar 10, 2009 Posts: 3
  • Dammit, I stole the railroad line from the new yorker! When are they going to get some fact checkers?

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Mar 10, 2009 Posts: 354
  • “[...] the fact that the developer community has embraced the iPhone platform so willingly spells bad news for Microsoft in the Mobile OS department because it means developers are happy to abandon Microsoft if the monetary rewards lie elsewhere.”
    Your premise is flawed in at least two ways.

    First, I suspect many of the iPhone developers were never Windows Mobile developers in the first place, but people who saw the promise of the iPhone and wanted to get in on the ground floor.  So saying they “abandoned” Microsoft is like saying you abandoned the Presidency.

    Second, while there are several Windows Mobile developers who have produced or are working on iPhone software, that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped working on Windows Mobile software.  It just means that they’re branching out, seeking new revenue streams and/or hedging their bets.  In fact, if a company is actually hiring new developers to work on the iPhone, that’s the best of both worlds—both platforms get software and more programmers get jobs.

    But, just for grins, what well-known Windows Mobile software companies or developers (meaning they’ve had at least one major, successful WinMo app) have actually stopped developing Windows Mobile software to work on some other platform (not just the iPhone)?  If the answer is “not many”, you should retract your claim.


    Pony99CA had this to say on Mar 10, 2009 Posts: 1
  • Well Steve you have a good point. I used a poor choice of words when I used “Abandon”. That set up a completely unnecessary comparison of the two. You are right, it isn’t an either or kind of deal.

    The point I was after (and missing) is that the go to platform for mobile development is no longer Windows Mobile.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Mar 10, 2009 Posts: 354
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