The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

Summary: Microsoft continues to play catch-up in the mobile market. However, there's still one big opportunity Microsoft could seize in order to win buyers away from Android and Apple devices.


Although Microsoft has delivered a solid product in Windows Phone 7, the uptake from the public has been anemic as Android and Apple continue to suck most of the oxygen out of the mobile space. WP7 will get a shot in the arm later this year when Nokia moves most of its smartphones to the platform, but Microsoft is still in for an uphill climb in this market, which is critical to the future of tech. If the company wants to to be more than a distant niche player in mobile, it's going to need to do something bold and innovative in order to compete with Android and iOS devices.

Last week, I wrote about the "utopian convergence of PC and mobile" and looked at the question of how long it might be until smartphones and traditional computers come together into a single device. I mentioned that a lot of the hardware makers like Samsung, Apple, Dell, and HP are unlikely to push this development because they would much rather sell you two or three devices (PC, smartphone, and tablet) than one converged super-device. That's why this could be the one big opening for Microsoft to step in and make a major impact on the mobile space.

The opportunity

The interesting thing is that former CEO Bill Gates (right) saw this opportunity coming over a decade ago. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he often talked about how the future of the PC could be the phone -- especially in the developing world -- and that a user would place the phone on a desk and it would wirelessly connect to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor and work like a standard computer.

Microsoft could still be the company that brings this innovation to market on a mass scale. In fact, Microsoft leaders should look at what Motorola is doing with its Webtop software running on Android phones like the Motorola Atrix and say to themselves, "This is our territory. We need to own this."

In the short term, on Windows Phone 7, Microsoft should inject a lightweight Windows instance (yes, I realize that sounds like an oxymoron) that could be launched when the device is in desktop mode. Let the device seamlessly share PIM data between the mobile software and the full desktop software. And, deliver a user interface that is relatively consistent across the two experiences. If Microsoft were to pull that off and make it a lot better experience than the sluggish Motorola software, it could give people a reason to buy a Windows phone instead of Android or Apple devices.

Of course, there's one problem here. Microsoft's top hardware partners -- HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Samsung -- are unlikely to be eager to push this concept since it could cut into traditional PC sales. If that's that case, then Microsoft may have to go it alone and do the hardware and the software. The company once had a rocky history with hardware, but in recent years it has produced some much higher quality devices like the latest generation Xbox 360, the Kinect, and even the Zune HD. It may be time for Microsoft to build the converged PC-mobile device of the future itself -- even if that means buying out a partner like Nokia or HTC in order to make it happen.

Two reasons Microsoft could miss it

Despite the fact that Microsoft could potentially burst through the line of scrimmage and run for a touchdown on this opportunity, there are a couple reasons why it's unlikely that Microsoft will take the ball and make that run.

1. The vision problem

Since Gates officially stepped aside in 2008 to focus on philanthropy, Microsoft has shown no vision for the future of computing. It has failed to focus on product strategy and has fallen farther and farther behind on innovation, especially in the nascent markets for smartphones and tablets. Current CEO Steve Ballmer has done a great job of squeezing profits out the company's products -- mostly Windows, Office, and server software -- but he may have mortgaged the company's future by putting so little emphasis on product development in PC, mobile, and cloud computing. With that in mind, it's hard to imagine Microsoft taking such a bold leap.

2. Windows fears

Just as Microsoft's hardware partners are afraid of cannibalizing existing revenue from their PC and mobile devices by creating a converged device, Microsoft will have a hard time getting past the short-term revenue hit that its Windows division could take if Microsoft were to create a converged uber-phone that could replace a PC purchase. Microsoft makes massive profits on Windows, and even though sales of tablets have already started to take a toll on new PC sales, Ballmer and Microsoft will likely try to milk the Windows cash cow for too long before they attempt to make a bold move. Indeed, when you're a large public company that has to maximize profits quarterly, it often forces you to play more defense than offense. However, in this case, Microsoft's stock price has been treading water for years as investors wait for Microsoft to give them a reason to believe in the company's future. A converged PC-smartphone from Microsoft could finally give them something to get excited about.

This was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility, Software, Windows

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  • Sounds plausible

    M$+Intel+Nokia ... could just do it.
    M$+Nokia + ARM license ... not so sure at all.

    The convergence of OS features has already begun ... and on iPhone/iMac too.

    I'd also like to see a split in compute device and screen:much more flexible ... and wireless USB peripherals so that we don't get stung by the OEM's for docking stations.
    • Except for one small problem... Windows Phone is DEAD

      Nokia can't save Windows Phone. Samsung, LG and HTC all failed with Windows Phone.

      Ballmer is the problem.

      Microsoft spent massive amounts on R&D. Even the failed Microsoft KIN phone cost over a billion dollars in R&D (including Danger Inc purchase).

      Apple's original iPhone only cost $150 million to develop.

      Everyone is now waking up to the fact that Windows Phone has already died. Look at the latest sales figures. Windows Phone is in a death spiral, and will soon join Zune and Kin in Microsoft's mobile graveyard.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        @gjafg One of the biggest problems WP7 has is its partners. I was in an AT&T store purchasing a Samsung Focus for my wife because she liked mine so much. I asked the salesman about WP7 and he said it wasn't worth anything because it "only" has 25K apps. Nevermind it's adding apps at a similar rate that iPhone did when it was released and twice as fast as Android.

        During the same visit to the AT&T store I overheard a different salesperson helping a customer tell them to go with iPhone or Android when the customer specifically asked about the windows phone.

        With friends like these, who needs enemies?

        I actually LOVE my WP7 and so does my wife. After she had it for a couple of days, she said, "I can't believe I'm being all high-tech!" The WP7 is so easy to use and works great. After Mango it'll have a similar features to the iPhone and Android phones out there and that's only 9 months after its release.

        Don't count it out yet.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        @gjafg <br>Wow... were you here spouting similar evidence against XBox, too? How little you know about persistence. BTW, the Zune lives on in the latest round of phones, and so does the social aspects of KIN. Time will definitely prove you foolish in your "think for the moment" perspective.<br>BTW, the 'spiral' is on an upward slant, gaining momentum and overtaking those that previously used WM6 devices. Hard to tell with your head in the sand, and your inherent bias against THE software giant, huh?<br>PS - When did iPhone come out? That was the last moment of innovation for them since.<br>
    • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

      @ME@<br><br>Another configuration which would do very well if M$ so choose: the converged mobile phone/low power portable ... being able to act as a network terminal (replacing the hugely expensive thin client devices which cost the same a cheap PC) ... combined with a decent deal on Windows Multipoint Server & RemoteFX for small scale use.<br><br>This would go down very well in homes and small businesses, as well as upselling to more powerful virtualisation options down the track.

      It is also a strategic match for M$ as a software vendor: by reducing the cost of hardware it can maximise the customer money available to be spent of software.
    • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile


      I'd like to see a boost in the economy...the US economy! Not more devices built in Asia!
  • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

    This is a rubblish idea. Unless somebody invents a nuclear battery that fits in a smartphone the smartphone should remain as a smartphone. There is no need to bring in the PC functionalites.

    Not much people are going to buy those 'pad phone' or Atrix kind of stuff.
    • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

      Some people disagree, they see a time where you will carry a phone for now (in the future just something like a sim/memory card) that will dock into various form factors, based on what you need to do with the computing resources, and bring a fairly consistent experience across those form factors.
  • Message has been deleted.

    • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

      @itguy10 - erm ... so who do you regard as being "innovative"?

      Apple? OSX is based on NeXT STEP which itself is built atop a UNIX/MACH kernel. Apple's GUI's were all descended from Xerox' Alto which they licensed from Xerox in exchange for Apple stock.

      Google? While Google did indeed create a great search engine, there were plenty of others around at the time (esp. AltaVista). Android is Linux shoehorned into a cellphone.

      Everything in the world of IT has some lineage behind it - some technology or technique that was developed previously which ends up getting superceded and improved upon.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        @bitcrazed Modern aircraft all have more or less the same lineage behind them. Is that to say the aerospace industry is incapable of innovation? Your argument doesn't add up.

        OSX is indeed based off NeXT STEP which itself was innovative in many regards, and was born of Steve Jobs. I wonder where that guy works now...

        Google's pagerank algorithm completely changed the landscape of online search engines. Seems like quite the innovation to me.

        Innovation can most certainly come from the roots of common concepts.
    • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

      @itguy10 Their first product was Basic, which they wrote. Microsoft was established on April 4, 1975 to develop and sell BASIC interpreters for the Altair 8800.
  • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

    Microsoft make a move in this race ... they have yet to GET OFF THE COUCH. So far, all they have done is send lawyers to the starting line to sue anyone that DOES START.
    • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

      @BrentRBrian - so far, Microsoft has had the balls to realize that their previous mobile platform just wasn't going to cut it and made the very bold decision to press the reset button and start again.

      Since then they've had a pretty strong re-entry into the mobile marketplace. WinPhone's app marketplace is growing faster than iPhone's or 'Droid's equivalents did and have similar sales figures for their first 9-10 months in market as 'Droid did when it first entered the frey.

      Could they have done things differently? Sure, but hindsight is wonderful - it's always very easy to second guess after the fact.

      One thing that naysayers should remember is that Microsoft's tenacity is formidable. Many have mocked Microsoft when they enter a new market (e.g. Lotus, Wordperfect, AmiPro, Sybase/Oracle/IBM, Notes, UNIX/LINUX, Netscape, Sun, Novell, ...), only to realize too late that Microsoft learns quickly and can execute exceptionally well when required.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        @bitcrazed Thank you, someone with some historical knowledge. Microsoft does its best work when they are the underdog in a market.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        You do realize all your examples are over a decade old and before Ballmer became CEO. I'll give them Xbox, but to be fair they were competing against Sony, which is not in the same league as Google/Apple/Oracle/IBM.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        @anono, "Sony is not in the same league as Google/Apple/Oracle/IBM"...I'll pick the Sony PS over a Google/Apple/Oracle/IBM video game console any day...oh yeah, that's right Google/Apple/Oracle/IBM doesn't have a game console.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        @bitcrazed I agree that Microsoft is tenacious, but your examples actually demonstrate the fact that Microsoft has lost its vision in recent years. All of the examples are from the Gates era. Microsoft has become too complacent and focused on milking existing revenue streams. They lack a strong vision of what the future should be, so they lack the focus required to make that future happen. Their approach now is to just head in a bunch of different directions and then cut whatever doesn't pan out. That wastes resources and results in much slower forward movement.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        Excellent rendition of reality, soon to be realized. I can't wait for another version of Apple's OS to release and look so similar to the played desktop/icons of 2000, or Google's foray into giving away an overplayed OS with zero regard/defense for patent infringement. The piper always comes calling. Free will become "almost free", people will tire of dead icons... Microsoft has made an investment into the true future, not just recombining elements of the present to look futuristic. They've also done it all without slanderous marketing (ala Apple), or the guise of giving away software with hidden repercussions (ala Google). They truly have the higher ground moving forward.
      • RE: The one big move Microsoft could still make in mobile

        @bitcrazed - Its a really good point..Tenacity of this compnay is incredible....Just take a look at the XBox...It was nothing compared to Sony's and Nintendo's products...and it was crticized by everyone as doomed to failure...Look where they are now...