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Windows Mobile worries mount as competition heats up

Microsoft's mobile OS future could be dim with the rise of Android, other rivals

October 26, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - When Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer admitted publicly in September that the company did "screw up with Windows Mobile," many experts were left wondering how the mobile operating system can be fixed with the arrival of version 7 next year -- and beyond.

A more pressing question might be: What will be left for Windows Mobile by the time version 7 arrives mid-year or later with all the smartphone competitors coming to market, especially Android smartphones from various makers and wireless carriers, including Motorola's Cliq and Droid, to be carried by T-Mobile and Verizon, respectively.

In a way, predictions of a possible demise of Windows Mobile are a bit wan to anybody who has followed the business for a decade. The OS once set the bar for other device makers, including Palm Inc. and Nokia, said Kevin Burden, an analyst at ABI Research.

But then came Apple Inc.'s iPhone in 2007, and steady progress from BlackBerry and the arrival of Android devices in late 2008.

"Heading into 2010, the momentum [for Windows Mobile] has dissipated and there has been wide speculation that Microsoft might be ready to bail out on the mobile operating system market altogether," Burden wrote recently.

In the summer, several Gartner Inc. analysts were also questioning the future for Windows Mobile on consumer-focused devices beyond Windows Mobile 7, noting that it was a poor performer for Microsoft and had fallen in market share.

In one exception, Burden and Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney have joined customers such as FedEx Inc. in predicting Windows Mobile has a long future for a specialized group of users who deploy the ruggedized devices made by companies such as Motorola, Intermec and Pison Teklogix.

It took many years for makers of rugged devices used mainly by warehouse workers and service and delivery drivers to convert their customers from DOS systems to Windows Mobile, so transitioning them to another OS would take years, Burden told Computerworld on Friday. "And even if you did try to transition, what OS would you use?" he asked.

But at the same, Burden said, "I worry about the future for Microsoft within the consumer-focused smartphone base. Windows Mobile will always be there for business users of rugged devices, but it's valid to say that for consumers, Windows Mobile's future is undecided and unclear."

If Windows Mobile 7 has interface improvements and changes to adapt to the user friendliness of iPhone and other devices, those changes might come along too late in the second half of 2010, Burden said. "If that happens then, what's left for Windows Mobile if Android really starts to take off and Symbian gets its act together?"



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