Time for Microsoft to pay up and move on

Microsoft's seduction of the mobile industry is being played out against the backdrop of legal action over its abusive history in the PC arena

During a Valentine's Day keynote at this week's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft's chief executive, Steve Ballmer, did his best to woo the mobile industry with his warm and fluffy side. The software giant is simply misunderstood, it seems, and has every intention of playing nicely in the mobile space. "I hear a lot from mobile operators, 'Are you our friends or foes?'" Ballmer cooed. "If you take only one message away today, it's that we come as friends."

During the course of his hour long seduction, Ballmer said all the right things. He gently nibbled at the earlobes of an audience that had heard of his love'em and leave'em reputation with words like 'interoperability' and 'relationships'. For New Microsoft, heterogeneous is truly erogenous. "We are going to embrace interoperability as core competence of relationship with partners," Ballmer smoothly intoned.

But while Microsoft may be able to talk the talk, handset manufacturers and operators — who have been hurt before — are keen to see some evidence that the software giant hasn't simply got one thing on its mind. The news this week that MSN has opted not to join an alliance of operators including Orange, Vodafone an T-Mobile, to make instant messaging services interoperable for customers, is not exactly reassuring. There are issues around competition with SMS that complicate the debate, but essentially this was an opportunity for Microsoft to engender some real affection from mobile players that it failed to take.

Matters weren't helped any this week by the fact that Ballmer's courting of the skittish mobile crowd was all played out against the back drop of Microsoft's ongoing legal dramas with the EU. Playing out like some bloody and protracted divorce, the accusations of strong-arm tactics and bullying in past relationships will have done little to reassure Microsoft's prospective mobile partners that the company is trustworthy. Ballmer's assertion that mobile handsets are basically mini-PCs was an unfortunate choice of wording. If it is to succeed in the mobile space, an arena where Windows is the relative newcomer, Microsoft would be well advised to keep the baggage of its turbulent PC affairs firmly under wraps, pay its EC alimony and move on.