2008 Year in Review: Microsoft falls further behind in mobile

Conspicuous by its absence from the headlines throughout 2008 was Microsoft--sure, the Windows Mobile operating system has mass and scale, but it doesn't have excitement. With its patchwork multitude of devices and applications viewed as passé by the affluent, tastemaking subscribers that carriers covet the most, Windows Mobile fell behind Apple's Mac OS X in terms of worldwide smartphone OS market share in the third quarter. According to Gartner research, Mac OS X now claims third place behind Symbian and BlackBerry with 12.9 percent of the global smartphone market, with WinMo sliding to fourth at 11.1 percent. In addition, iPhone sales both worldwide and in North America topped sales of WinMo devices for the first time.

Looking ahead at 2009, Microsoft must somehow begin transforming the fragmented Windows Mobile ecosystem into a more cohesive platform with a clearly definable identity in the marketplace. Because looking back at 2008, one sees little more than a series of missed opportunities, chief among them the failure to introduce the so-called Skymarket, the rumored centralized virtual marketplace that would enable consumers to find, purchase and download applications and content optimized for WinMo devices. After all, there's never been a universal destination for users seeking WinMo apps, and the success of Apple's App Store has proven the concept an essential element of any flourishing mobile software platform. No less important to Microsoft's mobile aspirations is the release of the long-rumored Windows Mobile 7 OS, which is expected to include features like advanced gesture recognition and speech-input services. Microsoft remains tight-lipped on the subject, but reports indicate the company has privately informed some partners the revamped OS won't be available until at least the second half of 2009, effectively pushing the commercial launch of WinMo 7 devices into 2010.

Even the moves Microsoft did make in 2008 are open to serious scrutiny. While the pending release of its Internet Explorer Mobile 6 browser is a necessary step to enhancing Microsoft's profile on the mobile web, some critics are already complaining the browser supports fewer web standards than its desktop counterpart Internet Explorer 7, while others counter it requires too much heavy lifting--128MB of RAM, and a 400MHz processor, to be precise. Nor will IE Mobile 6 be available as a separate product. Still, the browser does promise a full HTML rendering engine, support for Adobe Flash Lite 3.1, AJAX support and Javascript 5.7 and a series of UI improvements including touch, panning and multiple zoom levels. "We're giving the customer access to a very rich browsing experience on the phone," said Windows Mobile group product manager Jay Roxe in a November interview with FierceDeveloper. "Even in cases where there is no mobile optimized site, people can still surf the vast majority of the Internet and get a rich experience because we licensed Flash Lite." Roxe, at least, remains optimistic about Microsoft's mobile fortunes: "We will continue to do innovation in this space--we've become very engaged in the mobile space," he said. "In the year ahead we're going to see tremendous growth from Windows Mobile." Let's hope so, because for Microsoft, 2008 is clearly a year to forget.