Windows

Microsoft's one big opportunity in mobile

Microsoft is desperately playing catch-up in the mobile market. But, there's one big move that Microsoft could still make to lull buyers away from Android and Apple devices.

Although Microsoft has delivered a solid product in Windows Phone 7, the uptake from the public has been anemic as Android and Apple continue to suck most of the oxygen out of the mobile space. WP7 will get a shot in the arm later this year when Nokia moves most of its smartphones to the platform, but Microsoft is still in for an uphill climb in this market, which is critical to the future of tech. If the company wants to to be more than a distant niche player in mobile, it's going to need to do something bold and innovative in order to compete with Android and iOS devices.

Last week, I wrote about the "utopian convergence of PC and mobile" and looked at the question of how long it might be until smartphones and traditional computers come together into a single device. I mentioned that a lot of the hardware makers like Samsung, Apple, Dell, and HP are unlikely to push this development because they would much rather sell you two or three devices (PC, smartphone, and tablet) than one converged super-device. That's why this could be the one big opening for Microsoft to step in and make a major impact on the mobile space.

The opportunity

The interesting thing is that former CEO Bill Gates (right) saw this opportunity coming over a decade ago. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he often talked about how the future of the PC could be the phone -- especially in the developing world -- and that a user would place the phone on a desk and it would wirelessly connect to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor and work like a standard computer.

Microsoft could still be the company that brings this innovation to market on a mass scale. In fact, Microsoft leaders should look at what Motorola is doing with its Webtop software running on Android phones like the Motorola Atrix and say to themselves, "This is our territory. We need to own this."

In the short term, on Windows Phone 7, Microsoft should inject a lightweight Windows instance (yes, I realize that sounds like an oxymoron) that could be launched when the device is in desktop mode. Let the device seamlessly share PIM data between the mobile software and the full desktop software. And, deliver a user interface that is relatively consistent across the two experiences. If Microsoft were to pull that off and make it a lot better experience than the sluggish Motorola software, it could give people a reason to buy a Windows phone instead of Android or Apple devices.

Of course, there's one problem here. Microsoft's top hardware partners -- HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Samsung -- are unlikely to be eager to push this concept since it could cut into traditional PC sales. If that's that case, then Microsoft may have to go it alone and do the hardware and the software. The company once had a rocky history with hardware, but in recent years it has produced some much higher quality devices like the latest generation Xbox 360, the Kinect, and even the Zune HD. It may be time for Microsoft to build the converged PC-mobile device of the future itself -- even if that means buying out a partner like Nokia or HTC in order to make it happen.

Two reasons Microsoft could miss it

Despite the fact that Microsoft could potentially burst through the line of scrimmage and run for a touchdown on this opportunity, there are a couple reasons why it's unlikely that Microsoft will take the ball and make that run.

1. The vision problem

Since Gates officially stepped aside in 2008 to focus on philanthropy, Microsoft has shown no vision for the future of computing. It has failed to focus on product strategy and has fallen farther and farther behind on innovation, especially in the nascent markets for smartphones and tablets. Current CEO Steve Ballmer has done a great job of squeezing profits out the company's products -- mostly Windows, Office, and server software -- but he may have mortgaged the company's future by putting so little emphasis on product development in PC, mobile, and cloud computing. With that in mind, it's hard to imagine Microsoft taking such a bold leap.

2. Windows fears

Just as Microsoft's hardware partners are afraid of cannibalizing existing revenue from their PC and mobile devices by creating a converged device, Microsoft will have a hard time getting past the short-term revenue hit that its Windows division could take if Microsoft were to create a converged uber-phone that could replace a PC purchase. Microsoft makes massive profits on Windows, and even though sales of tablets have already started to take a toll on new PC sales, Ballmer and Microsoft will likely try to milk the Windows cash cow for too long before they attempt to make a bold move. Indeed, when you're a large public company that has to maximize profits quarterly, it often forces you to play more defense than offense. However, in this case, Microsoft's stock price has been treading water for years as investors wait for Microsoft to give them a reason to believe in the company's future. A converged PC-smartphone from Microsoft could finally give them something to get excited about.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

11 comments
rodtrent
rodtrent

The Canon ad is extremely offensive. I can't sit on this page and read through the entire article.

Gothar
Gothar

Now, that you mention it I see them, but I don't see any that are offensive. Are you prone to hallucinations? (I tell you they were there! Olivia Munn and 3 unicorns were dancing the Samba on a Canon Copier!) Unable to ignore an ad long enough to read a short article (or "sit" on the page)? Must be a highly effective ad! Or someone has attention problems. Can't figure out ad blocker software? This has to be one of the oddest (and saddest) posts I've ever read.

MmeMoxie
MmeMoxie

Get an Ad-Blocker program/add-in!!! It's so simple. Most browser have some sort of Ad-Blocker program, available. Sheesh....

jadams2021
jadams2021

Really, the canon ad is what you took away from this article. Wow. Back to the topic at hand, I don't see Microsoft making this move. They have sued all of the mobile makers, and are currently turning profit by those selling either Android and even the iPhone. In short, they make a buck from doing nothing and letting their competition win. I have the WP7 phone and quite frankly I think it is terrible. As far operations go its ok, but less developers are actually developing for the phone, and even less care to take it on being how the market is owned by Android and iPhone. Plus, there is all the red-tape to develop for Windows which makes it even less likely. I just don't see this happening.

mattohare
mattohare

And for those of us that want or need full keyboard and large screens? Are we to go with dumbed down interfaces that only work for touch screens? I'm sorry, I feel I've been getting burned with some of the recent trends towards comsumer machines and away from development & analysis tools.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Both what they need to do and why they won't do it. Someone else will beat them to the punch -- I just hope it's something closer to *nix than either Android or iOS is now.

dhays
dhays

too many times they don't block the pop-ups or pop-unders and do block the desired pop-ups, I wish someone with programming abilities far above mine (wouldn't take much) would fix that kind of thing, where the desired content wouldn't be blocked by a simple blocker and all ads would be. Of course as soon as you do that, someone would program a way around it. Or how about a muter or automatic pause--get the content if you wish, but don't set to come on if you don't opt in--for automatic videos that no one, except the site programmer, asked for?

kaninelupus
kaninelupus

I don't think MS is silly enough, as has already been stated. More likely (if they can get Balmer off the helm) is to first get their mobile devices right, then really work on creating that needed synergy btwn those devices.... As much as I'm sick of all the hype and spin over this mobile touch-screened devices (and all this hypothesizing about how the age of the full computer and OS is coming to an end), they have a legitimate place in a society and social culture always on the move.... make it fit the user and not the other way around... and make it easy to sync to and from the main computer when you get back home.....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... won't do it with today's mobile OSes and interfaces. They'll grow that into something that's capable of not only running a smartphone or pad, but also a full-blown development system. That won't be Windows, but it also won't be iOS or Android. It will be something beyond those.