Microsoft Stumbles in Mobile Murk

This post is something of an experiment. I want to write about Microsoft’s commitment  to the tablet PC and see whether anyone cares.

I did not witness Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s opening address at his company’s Worldwide Partner Conference. Most reports suggest that Ballmer was typically loud and proud, proclaiming an imminent Microsoft revival in cloud computing, mobile operating systems, and tablet computing.

For now, in this particular post, I will limit by commentary to Microsoft’s plans for tablet computing. The other topics will be addressed at another time.

According to Ballmer, about 20 device manufacturers will unveil various shapes and sizes of slate and tablet computers based on Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system before the year ends. Among the vendors churning out Windows 7 slates and tablets will be Acer Inc, Dell Inc, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, Toshiba Corp, Sony Corp., and numerous other hardware OEMs.

Ballmer didn’t mention HP, which procured its own operating system for smartphones, slates, and tablets when it acquired Palm and webOS. Nonetheless, Reuters reported that HP’s logo appeared on a slide listing PC makers working on Windows-based devices.

It’s hard to know how much to invest in that tidbit, however, because Phil McKinney, CTO of HP’s personal systems group, was simultaneously explaining at VentureBeat’s MobileBeat 2010 conference in San Francisco that his company bought Palm to “control the end-to-end experience” delivered by HP’s mobile devices.

It’s possible, of course, that HP will offer tablets based on Windows 7 as alternatives to its webOS products. HP might do so just to keep its relationship with Microsoft from fraying. Even so, HP will put its primary focus on the technology it acquired from Palm. To suggest otherwise is to question why HP bought Palm, and to question the sanity of HP’s executive leadership. Clearly HP did not buy Palm just so that it could license Windows for HP’s mobile devices.

Putting aside the touchy HP question, does Microsoft have what it takes to compete in a space that has been authoritatively defined by the success of Apple’s iPad? Theoretically anything can happen, but past performance and current circumstances suggest that Microsoft will not become king of this particular castle.

Let’s enumerate the reasons. First, there are questions about the technical suitability of Windows 7 for various slates and tablets. Windows hasn’t performed elegantly on netbooks — I, for one, immediately replaced the sluggish Windows Vista with Ubuntu on a low-end netbook in my possession —  and it’s an open question as to how well Windows 7 will perform on touch-based slates and tablets. A second consideration is whether Microsoft can deliver an experience that will be uniformly satisfactory across a broad range of devices from multiple vendors. Finally, it’s not 1999 anymore, and Microsoft’s isn’t the only operating-system software that device OEMs can evaluate for their new products. Google’s Android and Chrome are available, as are many variations of Linux. Microsoft isn’t the only game in town for tablet manufacturers.

Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, Microsoft seems to lack the customer intimacy and market focus that would give it a fighting chance in any competition against a strong rival with a notable head start.

Does Microsoft understand its tablet customers? Does it know who they are, what they want, and why they might choose a Windows device over one from Google or Apple? I’m not sure Microsoft has those answers. The company still seems to be pitching its products at an indeterminate intersection between the enterprise and the consumer. The trouble is, that crossroads is enveloped in darkness and fog, indistinct and poorly defined. Meanwhile, Microsoft wanders in the market’s wilderness, failing to travel on either road.

As I said earlier, though, anything is possible. Microsoft could get back on track, and it could reverse its declining fortunes in mobile devices, starting with slates and tablets and then —  yes, suspension of disbelief is required for this illogical leap — with smartphones, too. That said, Microsoft didn’t do enough today to prefigure such a bright future. From were I stand, the horizon looks murky and ominous.

2 responses to “Microsoft Stumbles in Mobile Murk

  1. It’s hard to see how Microsoft will offer something to phone OEMs that will make its offering materially competitive in the higher altitudes of the smartphone market. Operators might well continue to slot Microsoft devices from a number of vendors just to ensure that they keep pressure on Apple and Google (and in non US markets, Nokia/Symbian) but unless Microsoft can weave together a decent services story from its Live apps and show a compelling UX and figure out how to market it (abandoning the faux hipster positioning of Kin and Zune), its market share isn’t going to improve. Indeed, even if it does demonstrate that it gets UX and it gets services, it still has to make it more attractive to OEMs to build using Microsoft’s code than Google’s. It’s a hard slog ahead for them.

    • D’Arcy,

      I think you’re on the mark with your comments.

      In the past, Microsoft could count on a number of handset OEMs to license its mobile operating system. It probably took that business for granted. It can take nothing for granted now. As you say, Microsoft has a hard slog ahead.

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