With the KIN entering the market, HP's acquisition of Palm, and a number of other industry events, I have been asked quite a bit about Microsoft's chances of success with Windows Phone 7. Microsoft is losing traction in this market rapidly and is in desperate need of strategy that will keep their operating system competitive in a market dominated by RIM, Apple, and Google. If you look at the numbers released by Gartner toward the end of last year projecting mobile OS market share, they projected in 2012 Microsoft to rank 4th on the list with just over 12% of the smartphone OS market share. 12% of the market is not bad and would come out to roughly 70 million devices in that year. That being said, I can't imagine Microsoft being content with 4th place. So what do they need to do to be successful in a fragmented smartphone OS landscape in which we expect some consolidation to happen in the next few years?
Help Hardware Partners Differentiate
One of the primary complaints I have seen from device manufacturers, both in the PC space and in the mobile space, is that Windows as a platform did not help them differentiate themselves in the market. Manufacturers were challenged to only differentiate their products with hardware. With the rise of Apple over the last decade, the challenge on the Windows side became even more prevalent because of the clear differentiation in hardware and software Apple provides... leaving those who license Windows to all offer basically the same thing to the market.
HTC took matters into their own hands and created their own software, HTC Sense, to layer on top of Windows Mobile in order to not only make the Windows Mobile experience more pleasant, but to also differentiate their devices from the rest of the pack. Not all manufacturers are as entrepreneurial as HTC, but all manufacturers have a need to differentiate their products in the market.
Microsoft must address this need in order to provide their partners with a software platform that allows them to compete in this highly fragmented market. This is one of reasons I believe HP acquired Palm. I can see HP taking the webOS and extending it beyond mobile phones and into other categories like Netbook, Tablets, their Dream Screens, and maybe even to PCs. This is critical because HP understands the need to differentiate and they are positioning themselves to be in control of their own future.
Google is also enabling differentiation. Since their platform is open source, manufacturers have been taking the software and customizing it for their own needs. HTC does this, Motorola with MOTOBLUR has done this, and I believe we will see a great deal more customized Android platforms. Symbian has also started open-sourcing their code and can now be customized.
Pick Battles Wisely
I firmly believe that what we have seen with the Kin is a glimpse into things we will see from Microsoft in the future relative to the mobile market. The Kin represents a dedicated platform built specifically for a segment of the market, in this case the uber-socialite. The Kin was designed to specialize on a specific usage model. Tradeoffs in the hardware and software were made in order to focus exclusively on this usage model. I explain the variances in consumer markets as "use cases" and the Kin is designed to focus on a specific use case within mobile devices.
This is an example of Microsoft choosing to take their software platform and focus on a specific segment of the market, in essence choosing to compete for this particular market. I can see them beginning to carve out other segments of the market they are interested in and create a hardware/software experience unique to that market. Think an enterprise device with customized software and hardware designed to focus on the mobile worker, in essence to go right after RIM's core market.
Now this does not mean that they won't offer what I will call a "vanilla" Windows Phone 7 device that is more general in its uses. Microsoft will of course offer Windows Phone 7 as a platform for OEMs, but these devices will be more general then specific.
The mobile platform is shaping up to be an extremely competitive environment. Microsoft will be faced with many challenges, but we must not forget their commitment to the mobile platform. I don't expect them to give up, but I do believe they face some of the biggest challenges in the history of the company.