The clock is ticking. While our first glimpse of Microsoft’s reworked Windows Mobile 7 operating system should come on Monday, rumor has it that we won’t see even the very first phones to bear it as an operating system until September. With the iPhone, Google Android, and Palm WebOS nipping at Microsoft’s heels, will Microsoft’s newborn be dead on arrival?
Not necessarily. But get the defibrillator, it’s going to need a couple thousand volts of marketing to show a titter of a heartbeat.
A Timeline of Neglect
Microsoft’s problem stretches back at least as far as February 2007, when Windows Mobile 6 showed up on scene looking like an antique beside the just-announced iPhone. At that point, Windows Mobile held about a 14 percent share of the world smartphone market – already down from a high of 23 percent in 2004. But things would get much worse.
As Apple, Google and Palm devised their own slick, touch-based operating systems, Microsoft’s share slid even more. By the most recent numbers, Windows Mobile has a nine percent share, behind Apple at 13.7, RIM at 20.9, and Symbian at 50.3.
It has its own stagnation to blame. Who would have thought, back in 2007, that Windows Mobile would still be hiding behind the 6.X version number over three years later? Besides feeble 6.1 and 6.5 point revisions, the modern history of Windows Mobile has practically stood still in an era when competitors have raced ahead at full steam.
Rumblings of Windows Mobile 7 can be heard as far back as early 2008. But Microsoft has taken to following George Brussard’s Duke Nukem Forever release schedule: No delay is too insane. After originally claiming a 2009 release date, the entire year came and went, and we’re now well into the next one without any news. Even if it can stick to a rumored fall 2010 launch, the operating system is so late to the game that you have to wonder whether it should even bother suiting up.
The saying goes “better late than never,” but has Microsoft passed the point of redemption? Without the product in front of us, our magic eight ball keeps returning “reply hazy, try again later.”
Skeptical as we are, a product that has spent so much time in the incubator could be a genuine game changer. For our own sake, we hope it is. Yet even so, Microsoft will have to overcome its own remarkably late start if it hopes to get any traction.
Look at the Zune HD: We thought it made a spectacular media player, but arriving literally years after Apple’s pioneering iPod Touch, it came off as a hopeless spin-off, bound to live in the shadow of the Touch for the rest of its days.
Microsoft’s biggest advantage lies in its partners. Existing ties with companies like HTC, Samsung, LG and Sony should allow Microsoft to get Windows Mobile 7 phones off the ground relatively quickly after finishing the software, and from a diversity of manufacturers. By contrast, it took Google nearly a year to spool up a steady supply of fresh Android phones from many companies on many networks, while RIM, Apple and Palm all keep their operating systems restricted to their own hardware.
Microsoft is not too big to fail, and it has done so spectacularly in the past. While we have high hopes that whatever Steve Ballmer shows off on Monday can revive the Windows Mobile name, Microsoft will need a hell of a product and brutish PR to overcome the barriers it has already laid out for itself by sauntering into the marketplace years after the game leaders.