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February 24, 2010

Windows Mobile and the vertical markets

While Windows Mobile pretty much has ceased to be a factor in consumer markets, it remains very firmly entrenched in industrial and vertical markets where it may have a market share that's probably larger than that of Windows in desktops and notebooks. The good news is that as long as Microsoft continues to dominate the desktop, the leverage of Windows programming tools and expertise will probably all but guarantee a continuing role for Windows CE and Windows Mobile. That said, the rapid vanishing act of Windows Mobile in the consumer markets simply must be disconcerting to those whose business depends on Windows Mobile.

I won't go into the long and checkered history of Windows CE here, nor into Microsoft's bewildering meandering with nomenclature or the disruptive inconsistency and frequent course changes. It all has become an almost impenetrable mess even for longtime followers of Microsoft's smallest OS. Unfortunately, Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's latest knee jerk reaction to a changing smartphone market that has essentially relegated Windows Mobile into insignificance, casts more doubt and shadows on Windows Mobile than ever.

While in the real world, the one where manufacturers make and sell rugged mobile products, we continue to see Windows CE 5.0/6.0 and Windows Mobile 6 and 6.1, in the hype and announcement world, Microsoft has announced Windows Phone 7 OS, a trendy me-too music player interface trying to leverage the floundering Zune music player platform while copying iPhone and social networking concepts. It's hard to see how Windows Phone 7 could make a dent into the smartphone market, and it is most certainly not the future in commercial and vertical markets.

So where does that leave vertical markets who probably aren't thrilled at the prospect of being stuck with an increasingly obsolete Microsoft mini OS? Not in a very good position. Let's face it, the odd Windows Mobile 6.5 interface is essentially unsuitable for vertical markets. And now that Microsoft, scrambling to remain relevant in the mobile market, is putting its eggs into the projected capacitive (multi) touch basket, it's hard to see how any of the older versions of Windows CE/Windows Mobile (which is now renamed to "Windows Mobile Classic") may benefit from the Windows Phone 7 OS. Yet, something with "7" in it must happen to at least give the impression that Windows Mobile is moving forward (and to benefit from the relative shine of Windows 7).

So we have a situation where only last year, Microsoft's entertainment and devices division president Robbie Bach waxed enthusiastically about WinMo 6.5 ("It will give you access to more websites than you will be able to get to on an iPhone that will work actively and work well. It really is a much better experience.") and now the future of 6.5 already seems quite uncertain.

Personally, I think what may happen is that Microsoft will quietly integrate Windows CE/Mobile into its Windows Embedded Products business. That area already includes Windows Embedded CE in addition to Windows Embedded Standard, Windows Embedded Enterprise, Windows Embedded POSReady, Windows Embedded Server, Windows Embedded NavReady, and so on. The stated purpose of Windows Embedded CE is to "develop small footprint devices with a componentized, real-time operating system. Used in a wide array of devices, including portable navigation and communications devices." That makes sense.

One problem with this approach is that one part of the appeal of Windows CE/Windows Mobile was always that people were already familiar with its look and feel. Today, that look and feel is ancient, just as are the very visible underpinnings of Windows CE that essentially date back to the last millennium. And with Windows Mobile Pocket PCs gone and Windows Mobile phones irrelevant, that part of the leverage is gone as well. A new interface approach is sorely needed, but if Windows Mobile 6.5 and Windows Phone 7 are any indication, Microsoft's thrust is in the Zune player and social networking arena.

So what will the small but significant number of vendors who make and sell Windows Mobile devices do as their chosen operating system platform looks increasingly dated and is becoming a target of customer dissatisfaction? That's a good question. You can never count Microsoft out, but after all the fumbling with their mobile OS over the years, hopes for a cohesive, logical and compelling direction for Windows Mobile seem optimistic.

Posted by conradb212 at February 24, 2010 07:45 PM