Can Windows Mobile rebound?

Almost eight months after Microsoft first announced plans to launch its Windows Marketplace for Mobile effort, the app store is finally open for business. As of last week, Microsoft was still tweaking some known issues hampering the app submission process: Writing on The Windows Mobile Blog, Microsoft's Senior Director for Mobile Platform Services Product Management Todd Brix said the software giant was working to solve problems facing apps submitted for distribution in multiple international markets--Microsoft is also producing how-to videos, remaining active on forums and updating the Marketplace FAQ to simplify submission. Brix notes that Microsoft recently corrected issues with marketplace catalog icon dimensions--in addition, it will update Windows Marketplace prior to launch to make sure that screen shots meet the correct dimensions and aspect ratios.

While Microsoft will launch Windows Marketplace for Mobile in conjunction with its first Windows Mobile 6.5 devices, the company is looking forward by looking backward: "We've also discussed following this launch with an update that will include support for Windows Mobile 6 and 6.1 by the end of the year," Brix writes. "More specifically, we're targeting November for phase two. In addition, this second phase will bring the PC based catalog and shopping experience, user generated app reviews, advanced key-based anti-piracy protection and other enhancements that expand your business opportunity and make it easier for a larger number of customers to find and buy your application."

WinMo 6.5 arrives amidst grave doubts about the future of the Windows Mobile platform. Following August's announcement that longtime mobile adversaries Microsoft and Nokia will partner to integrate Microsoft Office software into upcoming Symbian smartphones, research firm Gartner was ready to stick a fork in Windows Mobile--"Despite loud protestations that Microsoft is deeply committed to WinMo, they wouldn't have needed this alliance with Nokia if WinMo were the leading smartphone operating system," Gartner analyst Nick Jones wrote. "I worry that WM7 could even be the last throw of the dice. Imagine you're [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer, and in two years time WinMo was still 4th in smartphone market share. How much longer would you keep throwing money at it?"

But in a research note issued last week, market analysis firm iSuppli maintains Windows Mobile not only will survive, it will thrive, tripling in smartphone usage between 2009 and 2013 to emerge as the second most popular OS in the global market, behind only Symbian. iSuppli forecasts that 67.9 million smartphones will run on WinMo in 2013 (up from 27.7 million in 2009), translating to a 15.3 percent share of the global market behind Symbian's projected 47.6 percent. iSuppli maintains WinMo can rebound because it's part of a complete infrastructure offering: "The battle over smartphone software has spread beyond the operating systems," argues iSuppli senior wireless communications analyst Tina Teng. "To win in today's environment, a company needs not only an operating system but also device support, an application store, a broad portfolio of applications and support from the developer community. While Windows Mobile is losing some share to competitors in 2009, most of the alternatives cannot match Microsoft's complete suite of offerings."

Teng also contends that Palm and Motorola's respective focus on webOS and Android will have little impact on WinMo's fortunes: "Palm never used Microsoft for all of its smartphone operating system needs, so it never represented a large amount of business... Furthermore, it was known that Palm was working on its own smartphone operating system for the Pre. As for Motorola, the company's shipments and market share in the mobile handset business have been declining in recent years, making it a less significant player." iSuppli believes the losses are offset by Microsoft's partnership with LG, which has pledged to produce 50 Windows Mobile handset models.

Even iSuppli admits that WinMo is its own worst enemy, charitably noting "the Windows Mobile user interface looks poor compared to some of its slicker competitors--particularly Google's Android and Apple's iPhone." So the iSuppli forecast pins its hopes on the long-in-incubation Windows Mobile 7 and its promise of a revamped operating system, an enhanced user interface and web browser and multi-touch controls. That's a lot riding on an OS that's still largely an enigma--although iSuppli's bet on Windows Mobile 7 is nothing compared to the wager Microsoft is making, of course. -Jason