Microsoft Missing the Boat on Mobile?

Yesterday’s Microsoft Watch had an incisive article about Microsoft’s failure to compete in the mobile phone marketplace. Echoing my own assertions that Microsoft’s obsessive focus on competition with Google in search is a massive distraction, while open mobile is Google’s most strategic initiative, Joe Wilcox notes:

Microsoft must change its priorities. The company has wasted too much time chasing Google in search. The search wars are over, and Google won. Microsoft must accept this. Where Microsoft should have been pushing hard is the device category where search will be the killer application: the cell phone.

Instead, Windows Mobile has fallen way behind competing products. Windows Mobile is a mess. The user interface is too complicated, and there are few—I say no—capabilities that distinguish it from other mobile operating systems….

It’s time for Microsoft to launch a mobile Manhattan Project, something on the scale of Internet Explorer in 1996. If Microsoft cedes the mobile market to Apple and Google, the PC will be the software giant’s final—and declining—legacy…

The mobile market has dramatically changed over the last 12-15 months. But Windows Mobile hasn’t moved with it. Apple’s iPhone is exciting and has raised end user expectations about mobile user interfaces. Apple’s iPhone platform has huge potential to woo developers, too, mainly because of the App store.

Now along comes Google, carrying two nuclear missiles: Android and Chrome. Both are immediate problems for Microsoft. Let me be absolutely clear: Chrome is not a Web browser, it’s an application runtime. Chrome is really Google Gears with a browser facade. Sure, Chrome is based on Webkit and has browser legacy, but the product’s core capabilities—and Google’s objectives for them—is running Web applications. Chrome is a development platform, but in the cloud instead of on the PC.

Implicit in the argument is that while both Google and Microsoft are subsidizing their mobile initiatives with cash from their core businesses, in Google’s case, succeeding on mobile is aligned with and strengthens their core revenue stream in search, while in Microsoft’s, it competes and undercuts their core revenue in operating systems. This becomes clear when Joe turns his mind to lightweight laptops:

Microsoft’s problem isn’t just mobile phones. The next-generation PCs aren’t big, they’re small. Yesterday I was looking at the pink MSI Wind Netbook and thought it would be a perfect Web application computer. “Net” is in the name for a reason.

Microsoft’s Windows Vista is a fiasco that just keeps on giving trouble. I’m not one of the Vista haters, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize its foibles. The biggest: Vista demands too much hardware at a time when the market has shifted to lower-powered notebooks and now netbooks and ultra-low-cost PCs. The latter two really can’t run Windows Vista, which is why Microsoft has licensed Windows XP Home for them.

Microsoft had to do something. The company couldn’t abandon the emerging netbook and ultra-low-cost PC markets to Linux, so it licensed Windows XP Home for these devices. Now Google comes along with Chrome, which is more application runtime than Web browser. Chrome should run just fine on netbooks running XP Home, even with the resources consumed by each tab operating as a single process.

What do you bet that Microsoft comes up with a new “improved” release of XP Home that has features deliberately designed to block Chrome? This is, after all, what they did against Netscape in 1996, with Windows NT Workstation allowing no more than 10 TCP/IP connections so that it couldn’t be used with Netscape web servers.

But this kind of backward-looking, defensive competition doesn’t do more than buy you time. Yes, Microsoft killed Netscape, but they missed the deeper, stronger competition that would come from true web applications like Google. The future is not like the past, and any strategy that is designed to protect the past will eventually fail.

What’s so ironic is that if Microsoft started thinking about the user again, instead of thinking about protecting their business, they could do great things. There are many problems yet to be solved in online software, but they won’t be solved without bold leaps into the future.

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