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Commentary
2/2/2011
09:40 AM
Rajan Chandras
Rajan Chandras
Commentary
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Microsoft: Missing the Mark in Mobile

Even if Microsoft can't be an innovator in mobile, it's essential that disparate mobile technologies integrate as seamlessly as possible with the plethora of Microsoft enterprise technologies.

Recent remarks by a senior Microsoft executive demonstrate a staggering naivety about where technology is headed, and the enterprise landscape of tomorrow.

The comment that got my attention was made last week by Jean-Philippe Courtois, President of Microsoft International, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Shrugging off concerns that Microsoft was falling behind in the race for mobile computing, Courtois said that such concerns are "simply overdone."

"Devices," says he, "are going to go and come."

Coming from someone at his position, this remark is at best irresponsible; at worst, a troubling indication that Microsoft is truly at sea when it comes to mobile computing. Of course, one errant reading (or reader) does not make a murky crystal ball. But consider Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's comments over the years:

On the iPhone: "That is the most expensive phone in the world. And it doesn't appeal to business customers because it doesn't have a keyboard. Which makes it not a very good e-mail machine... Right now, we're selling millions and millions and millions of phones a year. Apple is selling zero phones a year." [January 2007 ]

On the iPad: "We've got some other competitive actions coming back, and we'll talk about slates and tablets and blah, blah, blah, blah... "[July 2010 ]

From Ballmer to Courtois, indications are that Microsoft just isn't getting it about mobile computing. Unfortunately, this looks like yet another misstep in Microsoft's wobbly trajectory these days: The Yahoo acquisition fiasco; the continued faltering in mobile computing; the seemingly "jump the gun" strategy on Cloud Computing, appearing to bet the company even as the paradigm struggles through its adolescence phase; the perennially disappointing stock performance -- the stock languishes today where it was five years ago (when Bill Gates retired) and where it was ten years ago (when Ballmer was appointed CEO); and last but not the least, the worrying recent exodus of senior-level leadership from Microsoft. There are signs of increasing unrest across the technology world about Ballmer's ability to lead Microsoft.

There is a simple reason why companies need Microsoft to understand where mobile computing is headed (and also cloud computing and social computing). Some analysts expect that non-PC mobile devices will outnumber PC shipments by the middle of next year, and it's not just about consumers -- mobile computing is bringing about a sea change in enterprise technology.

As they charge bravely into the future, companies are finding that technologies and devices like the Apple iPhone and iPad, Google's Android operating system, and the Motorola Droid X phone are revolutionizing their strategies and operations. These devices are beginning to impact revenue (the top line) and boost productivity (and hence the bottom line).

Multi-channel customers experiences are having a positive impact on company revenue, according to Forrester analyst William Band. Mobile computing is empowering customer-facing workers. These are real benefits, not pie-in-the-sky. I'm even beginning to see technology architects leaving their laptops docked on the desk and bringing their iPads to meetings instead.

Microsoft is solidly positioned in the enterprise -- servers and desktops alike. To realize the benefits of mobile computing, companies need Microsoft to be a part of the solution. Even if Microsoft is not seen as an innovator in mobile computing (which, sadly, seems to be the case at this point), it is essential that disparate mobile technologies integrate as seamlessly as possible with the plethora of Microsoft enterprise technologies, from information access (e.g. Active Directory) to information sharing (SharePoint) and beyond.

On the positive side, there's still plenty of hope for Microsoft. As one GigaOm analyst puts it, claiming that Apple is dominating the tablet market is a little like saying Alexander Graham Bell dominated the telephone industry in 1876. The iPad created a niche, and left competitors scrambling to catch up, but that doesn't mean competition will lag forever.

Even if the iPad has, say, 95% market share in tablets today, that doesn't mean much -- this is bound to come down in the years to come. The question for Microsoft is: Will they own any piece of that (large and growing) pie?

So, somebody please wake up Mr. Courtois. And hand him an iPad.

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