While thinking about the hoopla that’s sure to accompany the long-awaited release of the Verizon iPhone later this week, one question kept popping into my head: Is Microsoft missing out on the mobile computing movement?
The company that popularized the graphical user interface, thus making personal computers accessible to the masses, has yet to deliver a truly successful mobile product.
Its latest effort, the Windows Phone 7 operating system, was well received by industry analysts, and early sales numbers haven’t been horrible. Roughly 1.5 million smartphones running Windows Phone 7 were sold in the first six weeks after the operating system’s release, according to Microsoft.
Windows Phone 7’s early performance is less impressive, however, when you consider Apple reported selling 3 million iPhones in that device’s first three weeks on the market.
The iPhone Maintains Momentum
Yes, the iPhone was released more than three years ago, but the fact that Verizon had to stop taking pre-orders the same day it started is a clear indication that this product continues to ride a big wave of momentum. It’s also clear that the other big player in the mobile space is not Microsoft, but Google, which claims that 300,000 phones running its Android operating system are being activated every day.
Apple, with its iPad, also dominates the tablet computing space, which over the long term is likely to be where the real mobile battle is fought as consumers opt to trade in bulky laptops for the lighter, more portable tablets.
Google has yet to prove that Android can play in the iPad’s arena, but several hardware manufacturers are set to offer upscale Android-based tablets this year, with the competitive Samsung Galaxy already in stores.
Microsoft also promises more Windows tablets will be coming soon — Dell, for one, just announced plans to deliver a 10-inch tablet running Windows 7 later this year — but I’m not expecting them to make much of a splash.
I feel strange denigrating Microsoft’s mobile efforts, mainly because I remember sitting in meetings with Microsoft executives giving PowePoint presentations on tablet computers in the mid-90s. This was during the period in which Steve Jobs had been forced out as CEO of Apple, and no one in the company seemed to have a clue about creating innovative products.
Those Windows-running machines — which gave users the option of inputting data either through the keyboard or by using a stylus and their own handwriting — were the coolest thing I had ever seen at the time. They also convinced me that Microsoft was poised to dominate the future of computing.
As I reflect back on those days, I’m forced to wonder how we got to the point of Microsoft being in danger of becoming an also-ran in an area in which it had such a big head start. Why couldn’t Microsoft and its partners build a market for those early tablets? I can only surmise that Microsoft erred by becoming too enamored of Windows.
It’s the Operating System
Meanwhile, Apple built the iPhone to run on iOS, a new operating system that was completely separate from the Mac OS that runs on Apple computers. Creating a new operating system allowed Apple to offer features, such as the touchscreen interface, that work much better on smaller mobile devices than on PCs — and users were quick to pick up on that fact.
The iPhone has achieved cult-like status because consumers believe it has the best user interface — and the largest ecosystem of applications — in the mobile phone space.
Android phones are selling well because they mimic the iPhone to a large degree, both with the user interface and the applications marketplace.
Microsoft claims that Windows Phone 7 is a completely new operating platform, built specifically for mobile devices and divorced from any previous versions of Windows. Yet, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was still expressing a desire to have users connect all their devices — PCs, tablets and phones — through a single operating platform. That’s an indication that Microsoft has yet to give up on the vision of a world with nothing but Windows.
The Microsoft-Nokia Alliance
There’s been talk lately of Microsoft striking an alliance that would put Windows Phone 7 into Nokia smartphones. An announcement to that effect could come this week, around the same time Verizon starts connecting iPhone users to its network.
Could the Nokia connection be the break Microsoft has needed to push it into the mobile big leagues? Nokia is still the leading supplier of mobile handsets. So, that partnership could put Windows Phone 7 devices in a lot of retail outlets around the world.
I would argue, however, that this partnership would be more of a gamble on Nokia’s part than a potential game-changer for Microsoft. Nokia has been losing market share recently, and it would enter a partnership with Microsoft in hopes of reversing that trend.
That makes sense on the surface, given that the mobile phone space is much more about software than hardware. The problem is that Windows Phone 7 has not proven so far to be as attractive to consumers as Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system. I don’t see how putting Windows Phone 7 into Nokia handsets changes that dynamic.
Microsoft is going to have do something to make its mobile operating system attractive in its own right, or it may have to bow out of the mobile arena altogether.