The recent announcement from DoCoMo intending to sell Windows Mobile handsets from HTC in 2H06 came as a surprise to many industry insiders, including myself. DoCoMo, much like Nokia has been a avid Microsoft adversary in the mobile device platform wars (see DoCoMo’s long-term agenda of developing its own handset middleware platform, first with DoJa, then with Symbian and Linux).
However, in retrospect, DoCoMo’s move reaffirms not the Japanese operator’s change of strategy, but the fact that Microsoft-powered devices are succesful in the enterprise. At the same time it reminds us that Windows devices are indeed succesful only in the enterprise.
DoCoMo’s announcement is an indication of Microsoft’s long-term strategy connecting Windows Mobile OS sales to its other flagship products, i.e. a) its enterprise software and b) the Windows desktop product. On the first front, Microsoft has designed the handset OS for seemless synchronisation with Microsoft’s enterprise products, forging a kind of strategic product dependence that, has been successful in yielding sales dependencies. Windows Mobile has since its first iteration in 2001 been designed for the enterprise environment, boasting features such as runtime security, remote device management and PIM synchronisation, features which took competing smartphone OSes at least two years to achieve (see SymbianOS).
On the second front, Microsoft has tried to forge a strategic dependency between its mobile device OS and its Windows desktop platform. This has been rather superficially focused on the user interface and the all-too-familiar ‘Start menu’. On this front, Microsoft has not done that well, opting with Windows Mobile 5 to switch to a S60-style grid menu, rather than insisting to shrink the Start Menu hierarchy into a 178×220 screen. Naturally there have been more subtle design weaknesses; Windows Mobile has never been a standalone device platform (thus far) – try for example setting the alarm clock without getting frustrated at the number of clicks required. In addition, in terms of commercial route to market, Microsoft has made very few concessions – it is insisting on controlling not only the OS, but also the hardware makeup and – more importantly – the middleware. The middleware layer (the enabling software for UI, multimedia and communications functions) is now becoming key to device customisation by industry power players such as mobile operators and content providers (more this on a future post). By retaining control of the hardware and middleware make-up Microsoft continues to turn away business opportunities which mat propel Windows Mobile into the consumer market.
The end-result ? Windows Mobile has been generating demand from enterprise customers, but much less so in the consumer market. So far, Windows-powered mobile devices have not become exactly mass-market, other than morphing into tens of operator variants, each selling typically in the order of tens of thousands of units. Like Michael Gartenberg at Jupiter says “Microsoft knows how to sell to business who buy a thousand PCs at a time. They don’t yet know how to sell to a consumer who buys one at a time.”
Will Microsoft learn from its mistakes and redesign the handset OS and the associated business model for mass-market consumers ? I wouldn’t bet on it. This would require a fundamental shift in the design mentality of the Redmond giant, one which has been happening every five years for Microsoft since 1995.