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Microsoft's mobile turnaround: what's at stake

By , Network World
October 06, 2009 04:01 PM ET

Network World - With the "Windows phones" being announced Tuesday, Microsoft swallows its pride, confesses the error of its ways, and takes an oath that it will never, ever be irrelevant in the mobile space.

Slideshow: First look at new Windows Mobile 6.5 phones

Nearly 30 phones from half-dozen manufacturers are on the list of handsets running Windows Mobile 6.5, which was unveiled early this year. The new software version, clearly influenced by the success of Apple's iPhone, is designed to simplify the user experience and create a more "finger friendly" interface.

The most immediate short-term user impact is likely to be the greatly improved browsing experience with Internet Explorer Mobile 6, the first full Microsoft Web browser on its Windows phones, drawing on code from desktop IE 6, 7 and 8.  

How successful the latest mobile reinvention will be remains to be seen. But the visible and more importantly invisible changes in Microsoft's mobile operating system plan reflects CEO Steve Ballmer's blunt public admission that the company had "screwed up" and his equally blunt vow that "this won't happen again."  

Ballmer even admitted that the 6.5 release is not the version he wanted to see released (the next big release is due in 2010). But the new version does represent the first indication of a big change: Microsoft has quietly cancelled its longstanding effort to stamp the PC-based "Windows Experience" onto mobile devices.

"That [approach] worked in 2006," says Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst for mobile device technology and trends at IDC. "But since then you have all these other devices -- iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm Pre -- that offer highly intuitive user interfaces that make using these phones really interesting."

"The word I hear from Microsoft over and over is, 'We're trying to make experience intuitive,'" Llamas says. "Some of the new features [in 6.5] are stepping away from the PC experience. They're working with the screen real estate, the processor, the memory that actually exists on these devices."

These rival phones made consumers sit up and notice. And enterprise users as well. "When the iPhone came out, it was a consumer device," says Mort Rosenthal, CEO of Enterprise Mobile, a mobile integrator launched with Microsoft funding to implement Windows Mobile enterprise deployments. "But the appeal of the interface and experience was quite compelling for enterprise users."

One result, he says, is that enterprises are adopting and supporting multi-vendor mobile platforms. So much so, that Enterprise Mobile recently announced it was embracing not just Windows Mobile but iPhone and BlackBerry.

One interpretation of this is that it took four years for Windows Mobile to reach the market share that BlackBerry operating system had before the smartphone market exploded. At the same time, Windows Mobile is relying on a broad base of handset vendors to do this. BlackBerry only relies on itself. The other piece of this is how quickly Mac OS X (iPhone) quickly grabbed market share practically overnight by relying only on its own devices and not another device manufacturer.

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