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Microsoft to encircle Google and Apple with Windows Mobile split

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When a person says they like something, they might also add: "What's not to like?"

When Steve Ballmer said he liked Microsoft's Windows Mobile strategy a few years back, you had to ask "what strategy"?

Microsoft's chief executive told CNBC-TV "I like our strategy, I like it a lot" while laughing off Apple's iPhone.

Ballmer was speaking when the iPhone was announced and not yet released, Microsoft's primary market in mobile was business users, and the competition was RIM and the sickly Palm.

It was a stable and predictable world, like the world of super-power politics before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now, with the company losing market share to Apple along with RIM and Palm, and Google moving into the handset space with Android, old certainties are off and Microsoft is scrambling to find its place in the new world order.

Six months ago it unveiled Windows Mobile 6.5, which will add some finger-based input capabilities to Windows Mobile. Windows Mobile 6.5 wasn't even talked about when Ballmer went on TV in 2007, and when it launches in October this year it'll be almost two and a half years behind the iPhone and four months after Palm's webOS was released with the Pre.

We were told Windows Mobile 7.0 would follow in 2010, and would add more touch capabilities. Details are sketchy and Microsoft has not talked about Windows Mobile 7.0, but we had something to aim at. Call it "a strategy."

Now, it seems that Microsoft plans an interim Windows Mobile 6.5 upgrade in February 2010 "with a touch interface", DigiTimes has reported. The report cites sources inside handset makers.

And, once Windows Mobile 7.0 is released in the fourth-quarter of 2010 Microsoft will cut the price of Windows Mobile 6.5. The idea is to compete against Android using Windows Mobile 6.5 and the iPhone with Windows Mobile 7.0, DigiTimes said.

Microsoft refused to comment on the report, but a spokesperson told The Reg that Microsoft is excited about the launch of Windows Mobile 6.5. "This is our focus right now," he said.

The dictionary defines strategy as "a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result." Based on what we've seen, on what Microsoft has said about needing to do better, and on the company's recent loss of market share, it would be generous to call what's going on in Windows Mobile a strategy - now, in 2007, or going further back.

If DigiTimes is correct, the new so-called dual-approach strategy backs what The Reg believes is Microsoft's real goal: use Windows Mobile 6.5 to onramp iPhone converts to Windows Mobile 7.0.

It's hard to see, though, whether Microsoft can sway iPhone developers with the offer of either of these operating systems, or if they'll respond to being gently moved down an unclear roadmap that'll simply bring Microsoft to some kind of parity with Apple, Google, and Palm once it's completed.

Meanwhile, we have the added complication of Windows 7. This will add finger-licking touch and raise further questions of why didn't Microsoft simply cut its losses and cut down the PC version of Windows for mobile devices.

Keeping up with the Joneses

This would have made sense for the roadmap of Windows and provided a practical answer to getting developers. Microsoft could appeal to the existing base of Windows programmers, rather than try to poach smartphone developers from Apple, Google, Palm, or RIM.

At a high level, Microsoft's approach to mobile has been sound: build market share for Windows using devices, with Microsoft as a software-only player. It's what Microsoft did in the PC and server world - build software and outsource hardware engineering and delivery to partners.

Ballmer had every reason to like Microsoft's strategy because it worked. Microsoft has provided email, web browsing, and music in Windows on handsets right up there with everyone else and it has built market share. Windows Mobile worked for business users, and Microsoft kept up with the competition.

However, Microsoft did not excite developers or consumers, the leading adopters of new technologies past whose embrace of touch on smart phones is driving uptake of the iPhone among business users.

In the partner model Microsoft has followed, excitement and innovation must come from the top - from the software provider. And in this regard, Microsoft has failed to read the future and create a strategy for it in the way that Apple did, and in the way Google and Palm have now caught on to.

Microsoft needs a strategy reset to regain a vision that will capture developers and consumers, not updates to Windows 6.5. ®

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