MS Smartphones Catching Up



Mobile Review has an overview of the newest Windows Mobile Phone and they're catching up. In classic Microsoft style, versions 1 and 2 of their phones have been pretty much duds - big, slow, and missing critical features such as integrated camera or Bluetooth. The Mio 8380 - though aimed only at the Asian market - shows that Microsoft is moving forward by getting a high-powered camera with an integrated camera for both snapshots and video.

The specs for the next version of the Motorola V700 is due in February and will have the complete smart phone package - small, powerful, camera, Bluetooth and powered by Windows Mobile 2003. This is really where Microsoft evens up with the competition, and if things aren't done quickly to improve ease of development on the Symbian and Palm platforms, easily surpass the capabilities of the competition's smart phones as well.

Now we all know and I've written before - there's a lot more going on in the mobile phone market than just the capabilities of the mobiles themselves. Nokia has a massive share of the market and by pushing their Series 60 phones as even just a small percentage of their total phones sold, they will outsell every other platform out there. Series 60 is Symbian and that's good. Corporations may standardize on a mobile platform just because of the cost factors involved and Nokia phones may be the standard based on their ubiquity outside the corporate firewall.

However, I can see other forces will start to affect the smart phone market eventually. Phones that are marketed the most, and are most similar to what people use every day at school and at work and at home will get more popular. Corporate buyers may start using their buying power to purchase the phones that their in-house developers can most easily use to create custom apps. This of course will mean Windows powered phones, especially if the .Net Compact framework is as good as it looks in the demos. The most important thing to remember is that the Windows Mobile OS does *not suck*. It's not as polished as Symbian/Series 60 right now, but this is only a matter of time, and Microsoft knows this.

There is a growing sensation among the Mobitopians that the Symbian guys are these really bright, really nice guys from England that have done a really good job so far but are about to get crushed like roadkill by the Redmond Borg. Microsoft has this amazingly long view of the competition and a massive warchest to fall back on. Earlier this year I wrote about how Microsoft was talking to the audience at the Mobile Development conference about their mobile plans and was referring to five year plans. They now have $50 billion in the bank and aren't afraid to spend it to capture new markets. When Microsoft decides it's time to strike, they'll launch a marketing campaign for their handset OS that is so encompassing that their market share will triple over night. Think back to Windows 95. Granted right now that sort of gain wouldn't give them much, but that's why they're biding their time. Launching the SPV only in the U.K. - a relatively small market - at first to work out the bugs. Corrupting Motorola into dumping the Symbian consortium it helped start next. Worming their way in to directly to the carriers by taking advantage of the natural tension between them and the manufacturers. When Microsoft finally has a phone or two that don't suck on the market, that's when it'll really hit, and hit hard. You can just see it written in their MS Project Gant-chart from here.

I worked intimately with Microsoft in Atlanta - I helped build a Microsoft consulting practice from scratch back before Windows 95 was even launched, Exchange didn't exist, Novell ruled the networking servers and Office still had competition. I became a Certified Solutions Developer to get us the numbers we needed to be an official provider and they sent me to Microsoft classes and I got to hobnob at TechEd and attend special Microsoft-only seminars once in a while like for presentations and networking. I've also worked with these guys on and off throughout the years on various projects before I converted and I'll tell you the organization is completely dedicated to the task of eradication of all competition thoroughly and totally. Everyone knows this, of course, but I truly grok it as only someone who once drank the Kool aid can grok it. I'm not the only one who wonders if the guys at Symbian truly get this or not.

And what about Palm and Linux? I for one don't give them much hope. Palm is a great OS and I'm sure a phone like the Treo 600 will gain a lot of admirers, but Palm just doesn't have what it takes to make the deals and pump out phones like Nokia. Motorola and other Asian manufactures might be hot on Linux, but they'll have a lot of work to do to gain a development base that's as big as Microsoft's, Palm's or Symbian's is. I think it's a shame for Palm because it's such a nice user experience, but they missed their opportunity years ago, so no tears shed there. Other Mobitopians (Erik) think that Linux will have a much bigger role, and that may be the case, but unless a manufacturer or other organization steps up and provides the books, tutorials, and integrated development environment that the other platforms offer, I don't think it'll be much more than a niche operating system where most apps are written in Java, like on the Motorola A700 to be launched next year.

Java is of course, always the spoiler since it runs everywhere. But I question whether the JCP mobile efforts are moving fast enough to catch up to what Microsoft is offering with .Net Compact. Sun's lowest-common-denominator focus is okay for little video games, but when it comes to developing full-fledged mobile enterprise applications that are used daily, Mobile Java just doesn't cut it right now. Memory limitations, storage limitations and proprietary extensions by individual manufacturers are already dividing Java - making some phones more useful than others. The fact that the newest mobile phones run on 200Mhz XScale processors and other 32-bit processors with MEGS of memory (not kilobytes) shows just how much Java is lagging behind the standards when it comes to smart phones. MIDP 2.0 is nice, but the common extensions are Media and Bluetooth... what about XML? How long will it be before the JCP finishes the J2ME Web Services spec so mobile Java developers can stop screwing around with kXML and get some work done? Probably a long time if you consider that MIDP 2.0 was finalized last November, and the first phone to launch with that spec will be the 6600 due out sometime in next few months...

Okay, so enough with the bitching. At this moment in time everything is going well. Mobile Java phones number in the millions, Series 60 phones rule the smart phone market - as well as the PDA market - and Microsoft is barely on the mobile map. But the problem is that I can see the status quo continuing on this collision course without much change. Symbian can continue without creating a reasonable alternative to .Net Compact (i.e. an easy way to develop apps for their OS), Sun can continue targeting the least powerful phones leading to less compelling applications and developer revolt, Palm and Linux continue to "do well" but still sit in their niche and Nokia continues to worry about the other established players and not look at the looming menace from Redmond. Then suddenly Microsoft will show up with a good looking phone, that's easy to develop on, with great deals from the carriers backed with millions in marketing dollars aimed at consumers and corps alike, and a massive army of developers backing them and the rest of the industry will cry foul as they get tromped on yet again by the borg. I can see it happening, can't you?

Maybe not next year, maybe not the year after that... but at the end of that 5 year plan up in Bill's office, he's got a massive share of the mobile market, you know it. So far in my lifetime, betting against the borg hasn't paid off... and that's what disturbs me so much.


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