Thought for the day: Microsoft's mobile battle

Consumers will determine who will rule the mobile computing market, says Nick Hunn.

Nick Hunn  

Consumers will determine who will rule the mobile market, says Nick Hunn. 




It is common knowledge that Microsoft would like to become a major player in mobile phones.

More than one billion users already have handsets and the software giant has been hungrily eyeing the market held by Nokia, Ericsson-Sony, Samsung et al.

However, this is a battle where the Microsoft marketing machine may have a hard time. It is competing with Symbian, an operating system developed by the firms that already have a foothold in the handset market and understand what the user wants.

Microsoft may own the corporate IT market, but if it believes that this gives it a significant advantage in the handset arena it could be mistaken. Corporate America still believes in pagers, and that is not a healthy start when you are trying to achieve world dominance in handsets.

One of the big problems with Microsoft's credibility as a handset supplier is the degree of exaggeration and hyperbole that accompanies statements about the company.

Take some numbers from analyst group Instat, which estimates that in five years 25% of the handset market will belong to Microsoft. That represents 250 million handsets. Allegedly these will be bought by a large proportion of people already using PDAs, although this is currently well below 25 million devices, of which Microsoft users represent about 10%. So if we are to believe Instat, Microsoft will achieve a 100-fold increase in sales.

Despite the hype, PDAs have not yet achieved sufficient volumes to make them relevant - most are used as diaries and calendars. GSM mobile data has been around for eight years, letting users download e-mail, and it still struggles, in part because Microsoft has so bloated the code that viewing attachments on the move is impractical. Yet now the company believes this will take off. It does not add up.

Also, most corporate PDAs are personal property. IT managers do not want to double the number of devices they connect to the corporate network. They are more than happy for handsets to remain private property.

In contrast, Symbian is unashamedly going for the fun stuff: logos, games, ringtones and video, all of which have a decent end-user track record. And there are a lot of Symbian applications already out there.

I suspect most Symbian developers are more than happy that the .net developers are wasting their time with corporate applications that no one wants, as they are already raking in money from the three million or so Symbian users, while owners of Microsoft's SPV smartphones are trying to find a second application.

The biggest challenge Microsoft has to face is that the major market for smartphones is consumers. Microsoft thinks it understands consumers because they buy home PCs. It does not. Consumers only buy Microsoft because they have little choice.

In contrast, members of the Symbian community know the consumer very well: they have already persuaded people to show off their phones in public - people rarely invite you back home to see their latest PC - and the consumer will determine who wins.

It will be an interesting battle. While Microsoft has managed to dominate the PC market, it has yet to be proven that it can expand into new areas - it has faced much stiffer competition in the games market than it expected.

At the end of the day, these are consumer devices and the battle will be won by whoever engages consumer interest. My money is on Symbian, although there is still a chance that both Microsoft and Symbian will lose out to new contenders. Anyone who thinks it is a two-horse race would do well to look at the latest entrant, SavaJe. If pure technology is to win, it is worthy of an outside bet.

What do you think?

Do you think Microsoft has a chance in the mobile phone market? Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the website. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Nick Hunn is managing director of mobile specialist TDK Systems

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