Microsoft's mobile ambitions suffers from fragmentation overload

Microsoft just can't seem to get away from fragmentation. Over the years Windows has fragmented into more SKUs than you can shake a stick at. Same with Office. Now Microsoft is betting that fragmenting its mobile platform into four or five different operating systems is the right way to go.

Microsoft just can't seem to get away from fragmentation. Over the years Windows has fragmented into more SKUs than you can shake a stick at. Same with Office. Now Microsoft is betting that fragmenting its mobile platform into four or five different operating systems is the right way to go.

Is it?

In a way, I can understand why Microsoft is doing what it's doing. The company has built its fortune based on differentiating consumer from enterprise. Windows is a prime example of this sort of thinking. Microsoft has staged the pricing of the OS based on whether the OS is aimed at the average user, power users or enterprise users. The actually differences between the SKUs (apart from licensing) are minor, but it's a recipe that keeps the cash rolling in.

But can this approach work on the mobile front? Under Ballmer's leadership, the Redmond giant now has to work on pushing Windows Mobile Classic, Windows Embedded Handheld, Windows Phone 7 series, Kin and Zune. No matter how you cut it, that's an awful lot of ships that Microsoft has to steer and control, in a market that's already pretty crowded.

Fragmentation happens. Even Apple's iPhone OS/iOS and Google's Android has suffered some degree of fragmentation. It happens as a natural result of progress. But it needs to be managed. Google and Apple are both working hard to bring everyone onto the same page. Android 2.1 looks like it might be around for longer than previous incarnations of the OS, and Apple is offering iOS 4 as a free upgrade to all iPhone and iPod touch users (apart from those true early adopters who have clung on to the early hardware).

So why is Microsoft so hooked on fragmentation when it comes to mobile? Well, there's the company's need to differentiate between consumer and enterprise (something that neither Google nor Apple has done) so that enterprise and power users pay more. But there's also pressure from OEMs, or more specifically the downward pressure that OEMs would put on the licensing fee for one OS. I also think that Microsoft is spreading its eggs across multiple baskets, so if one mobile OS turns out to be a lame duck, Microsoft can cut it adrift without affecting the other mobile OSes.

There's talk of Microsoft's mobile OSes converging at some point in the future, but there's little solid information on what shape these hybrid OSes will take and no roadmap. Words, just words. Nothing that users or developers can use to plan for the future.

To me, Microsoft's mobile ambitions seem confused. Sure, there are a lot of cool products both already out of the door and on the way, but it's hard to see how they come together as part of a strategy. It seems like Microsoft is throwing as many platforms as the wall as it can muster so it can see what sticks.

For consumers, enterprise and developers, that approach sucks.

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