If history repeats itself, Microsoft will dominate mobile platforms

TechRepublic member dcolbert likens today's mobile contenders with desktop PCs from 20 years ago. If history repeats itself, he believes the Android will be phased out and Windows Mobile will rise to the top. Do you agree?

Roughly 20 years ago, desktop PCs fell into several categories: 1) Expensive, business-oriented "IBM compatible" PCs; 2) inexpensive, consumer-oriented 8-bit PCs that were mostly glorified gaming platforms (the waning Commodore 64 and Atari 800xl series); and 3) emerging 16-bit PCs built on the Motorola 68000 series CPU. This last category included the very expensive, relatively limited Macintosh, and the less expensive, broader Atari ST and Amiga lines.

Why the history lesson? Well, because we were at a kind of "critical inflection point" with PC technology. The old 8-bit stuff was really just for inexpensive gaming – they hadn’t innovated and were still expensive, dry, and boring. On the other hand, the Amiga and Atari ST excited a lot of people – especially the Amiga with its impressive and affordable graphics and audio capabilities. In fact, the Amiga was really the first to deliver "photographic" quality images to a broad consumer audience.

I remember a demo… it was a digitized loop of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze riff, with him singing, "Excuse me, while I kiss the sky." It was effectively the first widely-distributed piracy of a commercial song in digital format. I knew then that analog tape and vinyl, and even those fancy new CDs, had limited days. One day, we would all store our music as digital files on our hard drives.

So, why aren't we all using Amiga-based PCs today? Well, that’s a good question, and one that lots of people have argued.

The Amiga was capable of great feats, but it mostly had games that were low-quality IBM PC "EGA" ports. In a nutshell, it was like playing Wii games on your Xbox 360. There were other issues too. The deal breaker was when the Intel 386, VGA graphics, and "Soundblaster" audio arrived – giving the lowly IBM PC capabilities that not only matched, but soundly trounced the aging Motorola 68000 PCs, including the Amiga.

The important thing to take away here is that things were in a state of flux. There were some vendors that were early to market but never gained a lot of momentum, and then the old dog stole their thunder.

Could the same thing happen today? Well, from the minute I picked up the Droid, it felt strangely, and unsettlingly "familiar." In fact, if you know your PC history, it’s almost eerie how similar the market is now.

Windows Mobile devices represent where the IBM PC was during the late 80s. Stodgy. As a matter of fact, WinMo 6.5 will continue to live in the enterprise, because for boring business work, a lot of corporate users still like their WinMo devices.

As for Apple -- once you scratch the surface, you can see that they haven’t actually learned any new tricks. With very few modifications, they’ve run the same business model for at least the last 25 years. They definitely have a "cool" factor, but that's somewhat offset by their closed architecture with non-standard apps and peripherals.

And then we have the Android, which has a lot of potential and excitement, but no one’s doing anything with it. It almost seems like their business model was to throw something great out there and hope that other people picked up the ball and ran with it. Unfortunately, looking back, it seems like this is kind of what Commodore was hoping would happen with the Amiga. But other than the first, affordable, color digital scanner (the Newtek Digiview) and a couple of early, innovative video games by EA (F/A-18 Interceptor and F1 Ferrari were revolutionary "simulators" at the time), nobody really stepped up.

Now, Windows Phone 7 has a new killer feature -- Xbox LIVE integration. Face it, the thing that made the iPhone such a huge success was consumer adoption based on leisure features, both gaming and social. Apple has traditionally been almost disdainful of gaming. Mac PCs, Motorola, PPC or Intel, Classic OS or OS X, have all done very little to accommodate gamers. Microsoft, on the other hand, has always realized that gaming sells PCs and related technologies, and they have been positioning themselves to be in the gaming market since well before the Xbox.

The Xbox experiment has been questioned by the industry, because it's a known money pit for Microsoft and would seem to conflict with many other Microsoft initiatives. The Xbox group has also been allowed to operate outside of the regular corporate structure and culture of Microsoft to a certain extent. And with Windows Phone 7, this strategy may pay off.

Despite being plagued by hardware reliability issues, Xbox 360 has positioned itself as the #2 player above the Sony PS3 in the current crop of console game platforms. If we dismiss the Wii as a "casual" game platform, then the Xbox 360 really has taken the lead with serious gamers. A well-conceptualized and executed mobile gaming experience integrated with Xbox LIVE has potentially significant sway with gamers -- and I think that up until the iPhone, catering to gamers was the one thing that most mobile devices were missing.

The thing that Windows Phone 7 brings to the table is not just an innovative mobile GUI, but more importantly, an innovative lead in gaming. Otherwise, like every other contender, it doesn't add any value to a solution that already exists in 75 million hands. Zune may be a great music platform, but it isn't compelling enough to lure people away from their iPods and iPhones, because iTunes and the iPod platform match the Zune.

But with Xbox Live integration, Microsoft comes to the table ahead of the competition with an innovative offering that none of their competitors are well situated to compete with. The whole thing plays out to be an oddly similar repeat of the PC/Macintosh/Amiga battles of the late 80s and early 90s. And Amiga, leading the pack in so many ways from the perspective of the gadget geek, was the first casualty of that battle.

Today, Android certainly sits in the place of the Amiga for many of the same reasons. While industry analysts have predicted that Android growth will be phenomenal, I'm going to say that without significant changes, it’s more likely to be phenomenally disappointing.

Google needs to figure out how to work with entertainment publishers to deliver big-name, high value, polished entertainment experiences -- or Apple and Microsoft will cannibalize their market and split it between them. I could be wrong, because there are certainly small variables that don’t match or align perfectly when comparing the past with the present in these examples. But if we just look at which player is in what position, I don’t think it bodes well for Android.

Let me hear your thoughts in the feedback section. Can Microsoft come back from behind to dominate mobile platforms? And is gaming really that important of a factor, or is there something I've missed?

By Donovan Colbert

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...