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It’s in the eyebrows

23/8/09

This should have been a very special year for Windows Mobile. A good mix of strong phones from most of the major manufacturers and rivals in disarray. It’s odd how disregarded Symbian is. The market leader gets ignored while Apple has the mindshare, but 2009, as the foundation year for Symbian changing as a company should have left it exposed to strength from its only established rival. Apple is still new, still limited in terms of product and geography. Android is yet to get started and Pre attached to CDMA, the Cinderella of mobile phone radio.

Yet it has turned into the year when it seems like the writing is on the wall for the mobile OS from Seattle.  The thing Windows mobile does best is sync. Having the same Outlook content in your pocket as on your desk is as productive as being able to take phone calls when you are away from your desk. But Microsoft has lost the leadership there. That belongs to Blackberry. There are too many good solutions from all the other phone platforms.

Windows mobile market share has tumbled and running the large development team must be uneconomic.  Having ten percent of the smartphone market, which in turn is only 15% of the mobile phone market doesn’t sit well with the massive development effort. It’s different for Nokia which is funding Symbian because Nokia makes money on the hardware. The foundation doesn’t have to make a profit on its own.

The turning point however is Android. I’m not a huge fan, the hype is too great and the power struggles between operators and handset vendors don’t need the complication of Google trying to undermine their customers revenue with Google Voice, but when you talk to people – ordinary people – with Android phones they love them. They have the same affinity to the phones as iPhone users and that is the thing which really sets Series 60 and Windows Mobile users apart from Android and Apple. Emotion. Watch a person as they pull the phone from their pocket to do something. In particular watch their eyebrows. Those that stroke their phone, Hero and 3GS owners have a look of wonderment. Those that pull out a Windows mobile phone, even the sexy new Toshiba, frown as they pull out the stylus and work out what to do. HTC has done a great job with its user interface, and the Sony Ericsson panels make life a bit easier but they are not enough to make you feel good about using it. Series 60 has been confused for a while, it’s also struggling to do too many things. It needs to go back to the roots of Nokia’s building different user interfaces for different screen sizes and consumer segmentation models.  That’s what gave Nokia the reputation of being easy to use.

The recent deal between Microsoft and Nokia to build mobile versions of the Office applications for Symbian is an interesting development. It shows that Microsoft has the openness to look for a different solution. It can defend the core business without having to maintain the pocket OS business.  And it won’t be the first time Microsoft has given up. There was a set-top box business – indeed several attempts at it with a strange device sold by Radio Shack (I’ve forgotten what it was called and would be grateful to anyone who could mail me), and the Sega Dreamcast which ran Windows CE. There has been Windows for cars, again with multiple flavours. The BMW iDrive is believed to have Windows underneath it, but iDrive is widely disliked.

So I’d argue that the Window of opportunity is closing for Windows Mobile. Manufacturers are defecting to Android with a security blanket of Symbian if they want an OS that has the features necessary for operators myriad requirements. Pre will fail, and Apple will grow, with more products and happier users.

But Microsoft will benefit in the end. If the openness continues and we see Office on other mobile platforms, they can play to their strengths. There has been a history of Office being not-quite-as-good on Apple but with no home OS it might be different.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here. Follow me on Twitter here.

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