Microsoft has often been criticized for trying to be all things to all people. It’s only natural that the world’s biggest software company would want to own the market for every type of software imaginable: business software, entertainment software, gaming software, operating system software, application software, security software, systems management software, desktop software, laptop software, tablet software, and phone software. You can call it diversification or you can call it fragmentation, but Robin Harris, in a recent ZDNet blog post, calls it a lack of focus.

I have to agree with that assessment, even though I disagree with some of his extrapolations. Microsoft is a lot of things — some good and some bad — but “focused” it’s not. It has too many products, too many projects, too many teams and departments and divisions and wholly owned subsidiaries for that. Far from being a crumbling empire, it’s actually made up of dozens of little fiefdoms that, if not actually at war with one another, don’t exactly cooperate fully and interoperate smoothly, either.

I also agree with Robin that the enterprise market is vitally important to Microsoft’s future, but I think Ed Bott has it right when he says the mobile market is crucial, too. And that’s because I believe mobile computing is going to become increasingly important to the enterprise.

Never say “never”

Robin states categorically that:

“Microsoft won’t succeed in the mobile business, especially against Apple.”

Many folks thought the same about Android, right up until it surpassed — by far — the success of iOS.

To support the assertion, Robin cites a series of Microsoft “failures” that include Zune, Windows Phone 7, tablets, retail stores, and the Xbox. I might give him the first one, albeit reluctantly. The Zune, like the Sony Betamax, was considered by many to be a superior product, but it suffered from bad timing and mediocre marketing. Microsoft retail stores have hardly been around long enough to be branded failures, and while we can say the old Windows tablets, which ran operating systems not designed for touch-friendliness, never caught on (although they did very well in some vertical markets), you can’t judge Microsoft’s future performance in the tablet market by that. It’s going to be a whole new ball game with Windows 8.

The Xbox is a failure? Now I’m really confused. Microsoft’s gaming console had a spectacular year in 2010, selling 1.9 million units in December alone, with 8 million Kinect sensors sold during its first 60 days on the market. Microsoft expects 2011 to be another record year for the Xbox 360, with 35 million members of the Xbox Live service.

But the most relevant product on the list, in this debate over whether the mobile market matters to Microsoft, is Windows Phone. The flat statement that Microsoft won’t succeed in this space flies in the face of predictions made by such respected entities as International Data Corporation (IDC) and Gartner. Researchers and analysts at both companies expect Windows Phone’s market share to overtake that of the iPhone on a worldwide basis by 2015. While this by no means guarantees anything in such a volatile market, it’s not smart to casually dismiss the informed opinions of not one but two companies that are in the business of closely studying the markets and making such forecasts.

Another reason not to count Microsoft out in the mobile market just yet is their past history of slowly but surely overtaking the competition. They did it to Netscape, they did it to WordPerfect, and they did it to Novell. Sure, I know the response to that is “But what have you done for me lately?” Well, how about that Xbox? It continues to steadily gain market share in a fiercely competitive market.

My point: Microsoft has always been a tortoise, not a hare. “Slow and steady wins the race” is the way they roll. Even some of their apparent out-and-out failures, such as Zune, can’t really be considered down for the count yet. After all, the Zune software has been subsumed into Windows Phone, and many believe smartphones will soon make standalone MP3 players irrelevant anyway, as evidenced by the decline in sales of the iPod.

The mobile enterprise

I think the fundamental flaw in Robin’s argument is the assumption that mobile devices are only consumer electronics. He says:

Apple is not trying to compete with Microsoft in the enterprise and Microsoft is foolish to try to compete with Apple in the consumer market.

But the mobile market is not confined to the consumer space. Sure, the iPhone began life as a consumer-targeted gadget, but the encroaching consumerization of IT soon brought it into the workplace. The iPad has likewise morphed from a “home and play” only device into an enterprise tool, with the Wall Street Journal reporting in February that 65% of Fortune 100 companies have deployed the iPad or have pilot programs. And Apple most certainty is targeting the business market with their mobile devices now. Competing in the mobile market should be part of a multipronged strategy for competing in the enterprise.

And Microsoft could have a big competitive advantage there — particularly with its partnership with Nokia. Nokia’s E series smartphones are all about business, and the company has shown that it knows how to make phone hardware that combines features business users want and need: good battery life, reliable performance, nice displays, and ergonomic form factors.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating system still has some limitations in its first incarnation (even post-Mango). However, it offers a number of features that are extremely attractive to business users (mobile versions of Microsoft Office, an excellent email client with seamless Exchange support, SharePoint integration) along with a slick and responsive user interface that will appeal to both business users and consumers.

Workers are becoming more and more mobile. We’re using our smartphones to keep abreast of our company email, create or review documents while we’re on the go, and text message or call coworkers, clients, vendors, and others with whom we work. Cloud computing will take enterprise mobile use to a new level. Smart phones and tablets — particularly full-featured Windows 8 tablets that can easily create content as well as consume it — will no longer be viewed as toys. They’ll be viewed as smaller and more portable client computers.

Is the enterprise mobile market enough?

Some are sure to say that, in order to be considered a real success in the mobile space, you need more than just the business smart phone and tablet market. But here’s the thing: If Microsoft can move in and capture the enterprise mobile market by offering phones and tablets that have what it takes to succeed in that market, there’s no reason that market share can’t “trickle down” to the consumer space in the same way devices made popular on the consumer side have crossed over into corporate territory.

If workers get Windows phones and tablets because they’re more compatible with the technologies they use on the job and then discover that they love the user experience, they’ll use those devices for their personal use, too. Most people don’t want to carry two phones or swap out tablets when they switch from doing work to leisure activities.

They’ll also introduce the Windows-based devices to their spouses, friends, kids, and others who want phones and tablets primarily or exclusively for nonbusiness tasks. And that’s how Microsoft could, slowly and steadily, make IDC’s and Gartners’ predictions come true and sneak up on Apple from behind, rather than duking it out head-to-head in the consumer space. But to pull it off, they’ll need to plan carefully and develop a strategy aimed specifically at creating this scenario.

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The challenge

Perhaps the biggest challenge Microsoft and its hardware partners, particularly Nokia, face regarding a mobile strategy is how to design phones and tablets that will provide full business functionality while maintaining the level of simplicity that today’s consumers have come to expect from iOS-based products. To do that, the company will need to focus — on both the mobile consumer market and the enterprise market and on how the two overlap.

I believe the lack of clear focus is being interpreted by much of the public as a lack of commitment. That, in turn, elicits a corresponding fear of commitment from potential customers. I’ve heard from people who like Windows Phone 7, but they’re afraid to invest their money and time into it, because they aren’t sure it’s going to be around for the long term. They’re afraid that if the phone doesn’t sell well, Microsoft will abandon it as they did with the Kin and pull out of the phone market altogether. Or they’re afraid that WP7 is only an interim measure and that the next version of Windows Phone will be based on the Windows 8 OS and will represent yet another “fresh start” that’s not compatible with the current phone.

The latter fear makes more sense to me than the former. I think dropping the Kin was an attempt to gain some of that much-needed focus. I think Microsoft is committed to the mobile market — if only because they recognize its relevance to the enterprise market in a cloud-based, on-the-go world. But moving the phone platform to Windows 8 might make sense, given that the OS is going to run on ARM processors. We know Windows tablets are going to be based on Windows 8, and the same base operating system across all form factors — desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone — would make for more efficient development, better compatibility, and, yes, a more focused approach.