MS phone chief departs

Juha moves on, mulls buying a Nokia

Juha Christensen, Microsoft's executive VP with responsibility for smartphones, is opting for a quieter life. From the end of this month he'll no longer have to endure ear-splitting motivational talks from Steve Ballmer, Microsoft confirmed today, as he's leaving the company.

Christensen arrived with a bang three years ago. At Psion Software he helped coalesce major mobile phone rivals Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola to form Symbian, based around a common software platform for smartphones. Matsushita and Sony subsequently signed up on his watch. After Bill Gates famously identified Symbian as his biggest competitive threat, Microsoft poached Juha to become the company's youngest Executive VP.

Microsoft lost a High Court legal action brought by Psion which prevented him from starting work for Redmond for six months. When he arrived, the microphone wasn't working.

The three years have been marked by misfirings and reshuffles. A year ago Bill Gates admitted Microsoft was "way, way, way" behind Nokia. Until Motorola signed up this year, Microsoft had failed to land one of the big three. In something of a backhanded compliment, a friend of Juha's told Reuters today: "he's clinched deals with many major operators and helped put Asian companies on the map nobody had heard about two years ago." Which surely wasn't part of the original plan. Microsoft's Stinger platform was delayed four times, and had already earned the industry nickname 'Stinker' long before we noticed the hum.

However, Microsoft was starting the race from far further behind than many appreciated; and critics who expected licensees to beat a path to Redmond's door also underestimated the cultural differences between the PC and the phone industries. With so much invested in branding, the major phone manufacturers were never likely to welcome a business model where they shift low margin, largely identical clones, and where only the OS company, the chip company and one large distributor make any money. With no experience in consumer electronics, Microsoft also underestimated the challenges of integrating the devices with networks.

Christensen's legacy might be better measured in the intangibles. Despite leaving one unexploded bomb in the shape of the Sendo lawsuit, things could have been worse. Microsoft didn't make a panic acquisition on his watch, and it focused Nokia on a radical change of strategy: taking charge of Symbian's 'Pearl' reference platform and aggressively licensing it under the brand Series 60. It proved that Nokia was prepared to lose a few points of market share to keep Microsoft from gaining ground. And that seems to be working so far. ®

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