Windows Mobile still in the game

Microsoft needs to bring innovation faster to its mobile platform to best the smartphone competition and regain market share, according to analysts.

There is no need to write Windows Mobile off yet, but Microsoft should release innovations for its mobile OS to market at a faster pace to best the smartphone competition, according to analysts.

Rachel Lashford, Canalys Asia-Pacific managing director, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that Windows Mobile has come under pressure from the competition which has been more innovative around the usability of the interfaces.

"I think Microsoft has come under pressure from more innovative OSes that have set the usability benchmark, such as Apple," Lashford said.

As a result, some of Microsoft's device maker partners have had to release user interface skins which "increase user experience", such as HTC with its Touch UI, she noted.

Developers have said that Windows Mobile offers less sophisticated UI tools, resulting in programmers needing to develop their own controls or purchase third-party add-ons--steps that are time-consuming and pricey, some said.

IDC Asia-Pacific personal systems research manager, Aloysius Choong, also said in an e-mail: "Microsoft can afford to move faster with its OS enhancements, especially in terms of usability."

Nonetheless, Microsoft has its sights on the competition and may quickly make up for lost time. Said Choong: "Microsoft as an organization not just thrives, but snarls and snaps at adversity. Compared with two years ago, I believe the company now has greater clarity and focus in its mobility mission."

The company has more recently started to realize the importance of the mobile computing component in building an overall cloud strategy, thanks to the "education" provided by the thriving examples displayed by Apple and Google, he said.

Shrinking market share
Numbers-wise, Windows Mobile appears to be taking a pummeling from the mounting smartphone competition.

According to Gartner, Windows Mobile lost almost a third of its smartphone market share between the third quarters of 2008 and 2009, from 11 percent down to 7.9 percent of the global market. At the same time, Gartner estimates the iPhone's share has risen from 12.9 percent to 17.1 percent, while Research in Motion has gone up from 16 percent to 20.8. percent in the same period.

Some of Microsoft's partners appear to be either shifting alliance or jumping ship to different platforms. HTC, known chiefly for its Windows Mobile handsets, has been ramping up production of its Android-based phones, with one aimed at the masses that it calls Tattoo.

Earlier this month, Samsung announced it would be focusing on its new Bada OS, indicating that the company would drop focus on Windows Mobile, on which the majority of the Korean maker's smartphones currently run.

That said, Winston Goh, Samsung Asia product marketing manager for mobile phones, told ZDNet Asia that Samsung will continue to release Windows Mobile devices "in the foreseeable future".

Commenting on the local market, Goh said: "It is our view that the Singapore market is mature enough to sustain and support multiple platforms and Samsung will be uniquely positioned to meet that demand with the experience we have built up in different operating systems."

Samsung intends to launch an Android-based phone early next year, adding another platform to its arsenal, he said.

Natasha Kwan, general manager, Asia, for Microsoft's mobile communications business, said in an e-mail interview that Microsoft expects its handset sales to increase, thanks to partnerships with OEMs and carriers globally.

She said: "The [rebranded] Windows phone means people can look forward to more than 30 new phones by the end of this year. In addition to this, we just signed a deal with LG to ship 50 LG Windows phones in the next three years."

On usability, Kwan said Microsoft's launch of its Windows Marketplace for Mobile is aimed at helping it reach more users with available software. "As more people buy smartphones, we've learnt that they want direct access to games and cool apps," she said.

Canalys' Lashford said Microsoft has a lot of "strong commitment" from partners, naming LG as one. She said Taiwan chipmaker, MediaTek, has also shown commitment to Windows Mobile, which is expected to help bring Microsoft into the burgeoning Chinese OEM phone market.

"There is no need to write Microsoft off at this point," she said.