Why didn't mobile platforms trip Microsoft up?

In the late 90s, we thought the diversity of mobile platforms would break Microsoft's monopoly. What went wrong?

A couple of years ago, we all thought that Microsoft really had it coming. The monopoly that gave it its power was on shaky grounds. Looking back, I wonder how we could be so naive.

The antitrust case was going, and Microsoft would no longer be able to exploit its effective monopoly on desktop operating systems, we thought. But more importantly, there was an even bigger threat coming up which would make that monopoly simply irrelevant: mobile devices.

Microsoft's power was based on the vast number of people who used Windows, which focused developer effort on that platform, commentators used to say. However, there was a wave of diverse devices coming, including WAP phones, various thin clients, PDAs and more. Microsoft would never be able to keep a coherent grip on them all, Windows would fragment, and opportunity would knock for its would-be rivals.

There were some good reasons why we expected this to happen. Microsoft's WebTV had been a dismal failure. So had the Microsoft at Work initiative, which tried to put Windows on fax machines and printers and was so cruddy it was known as "Windows for Toasters". Windows CE looked as if it would never seriously compete with PalmOS.

Even within the more or less successful branches of the Windows family, significant differences were emerging -- Windows NT, Windows 98 and Windows CE were different products; they had different APIs. For every new platform, Microsoft would have to create a new version of Windows -- and that would be a killer (or so we thought).

Every time Microsoft decided to put Windows on a new type of system, it would have to understand that kind of product, and the market it served. It would have to create software that used the unfamiliar hardware to provide Windows features (as far as they could be supported). It would have to encourage third parties to put applications on that platform. And it would have to displace whatever existed on that system already.

All this would be some task since, for example, Windows on a phone would look so different to Windows on a big screen that the application developer would have to produce and maintain two completely different versions of the application. Why would it bother to do that if, for example, Symbian evolved into a better operating system for phones and PDAs?

Microsoft had failed on so many new platforms in the past, it looked like a statistical likelihood that it would fail to spread Windows onto future new platforms.

At Tech Ed 2002 in Barcelona this week, I have seen no sign at all that mobile devices have tripped Microsoft up. Indeed, there seems to be huge enthusiasm for the moves it is making to deliver stuff on them.

Part of the change has been in Microsoft's improved software development and delivery products. Visual Studio.Net, though in its early days, looks like a runaway success. People from Rational Software told me it looks like a quarter of their enterprise customers are using it already.

And Visual Studio has two components designed to deliver applications for mobile devices. The Mobile Internet Toolkit and the .Net Compact Framework between them deliver applications on pretty much any platform.

The .Net Compact Framework apparently has about ten thousand active users, even though it is still a beta, launched a couple of months ago. It is intended to deliver applications for Microsoft's own Pocket PC platform. A very active Tech Ed session was evidence to me that people really are using this one for live applications already.

The Mobile Internet Toolkit, on the other hand (formerly the .Net Mobile Web SDK) delivers applications for Web clients, but is intended to ensure they render well on whatever platform they are running on, so that covers the non-Microsoft options.

It looks to me as if the success of Visual Studio means Microsoft can smooth the path to any platform. The Web-based thin client (which was another thing that at one time was supposed to destroy its monopoly) means it can put its applications anywhere, without having to put Windows on a platform.

In the end, the error we made when we said, "Microsoft won't spread to other devices," was the same one often made before when it looks like a chasm is opening in front of the juggernaut. What we were thinking was: "Microsoft cannot do this because it would require a massive effort by a huge number of people."

And as it turns out, a massive effort by a huge amount of people is exactly what Microsoft can deliver. I remember someone writing that Windows would never succeed against the Macintosh because DOS had been architected in such a way that it would take a massive effort to allow it to support graphics properly. We all know what happened there.

I think in the mobile space, we are seeing just that same kind of effect, once again.

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