OS Turf Wars Move to Mobile

by Paul Rubens

With Windows Phone 7 arriving on the scene, the mobile market is looking much like the OS market, redux. Will it carve out a similar footprint?

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Love Microsoft or hate it, there are two things about the Redmond enterprise OS maker you can't deny: It's very, very big, and it likes to get its fingers into every pie around. It may not be as big as Apple, at least in terms of market capitalization, but it does have the enormous resources required to do something that Steve Jobs' company has proved itself simply incapable of: Work on a mobile OS without neglecting its line of server and desktop enterprise operating systems.

To prove the point, late last week Microsoft announced that Windows Phone 7, its brand new mobile enterprise operating system, is as ready as its going to get, and it has been released to manufacturing.

It's an important moment for the company, despite being in a strong position in the enterprise OS market in the data center and in an overwhelmingly dominant position in the corporate desktop OS market. That's because the huge growth market, and arguably the most important battleground for enterprise operating systems right now, is the mobile arena. An enormous amount of enterprise computing will be carried out from smartphones and other mobile devices in the coming years, and Windows Phone 7 is perhaps Microsoft's only chance for the foreseeable future of being involved in it rather than missing the boat.

But hang on one moment -- isn't Windows Phone 7 meant to be a mobile OS for consumers? It's certainly big on features like gaming, Facebook integration and music and video playback. But then so are Blackberry 6, Android and iOS. Microsoft is simply reacting to the fact that the distinction between business and consumer phones is blurred. "We are all consumers these days," in other words. And let's not forget that there's a perfectly respectable and business-like Office hub in Windows Phone 7 with Word, Excel, OneNote, Sharepoint and Outlook email with ActiveSync. It's not all just fun and games.

In fact Microsoft doesn't do very well when it comes to consumer gadgets -- the Zune was supposed to be an iPod killer, remember? Hence, it's almost inevitable that Windows Phone 7 will be far less desirable than much of the competition in the smartphone market. Somehow I can't see the kids abandoning their iPhones for some clunky Asus rig running Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft must be banking on the fact that even if Windows Phone 7 handsets do indeed end up being far less desirable than the latest iOS 4, Android or Blackberry 6 devices, there will still be plenty of organizations that insist on standardizing on Windows Phone 7 mobile devices. They'll do so for the same reasons that they standardized on Windows Mobile devices in the past: Integration with other Microsoft products like Exchange and System Center and so on.

OK, so Windows Mobile has been losing market share at an alarming rate over the past couple of years, but it was a generation behind iOS and Android. Windows Phone 7, on the other hand, is at least in the same league as the current competition.

And that means Windows Phone 7 will principally be an enterprise mobile OS, competing in that space with the more consumer-oriented Android, iOS and (arguably) Blackberry 6. In terms of the competition, it's not much different than the enterprise server OS space, only there's Windows Phone 7 instead of Windows Server, the mainly open source Android OS instead of Linux, the secure Blackberry OS instead of UNIX, and iOS instead of OS X Server.

If things pan out similarly: Android will grow, Blackberry will slowly fade and iOS will become irrelevant as Apple loses interest in the enterprise software market altogether. Windows Phone 7? It won't be loved, but it will be solid enough to give Microsoft a substantial market share and maintain its strong position throughout the rest of the enterprise OS marketplace. Mission accomplished.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Sep 7th 2010
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