The smartphone wars are set for this holiday season: Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 3G versus new BlackBerry gadgets from Research In Motion (RIMM), and now Google’s ‘G1’ Android GPhone. Oh — and dozens of gadgets running Microsoft’s Windows Mobile.
Unlike Apple or RIM, which design both their phones and operating system, Microsoft (MSFT) has been taking a different approach for several years — focusing on the OS and letting partners figure out what the gadget will do and where it’ll sell. This is sort of what Google’s doing with Android and its Open Handset Alliance.
Despite having its own gadget design teams — which make the Zune and Xbox — Microsoft has “no plans to build our own phone,” says Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Windows Mobile. “Right now we’re happy to share the limelight,” he adds.
Hard to argue with that: While Apple might sell 10-12 million phones this year, Microsoft’s partners shipped 18 million in fiscal 2008, up two thirds from the year before, when they sold 11 million. That includes some 56 gadget manufacturers and 100 operators in more than 100 countries.
Similarly, while Apple has attracted a lot of attention for its red-hot app platform, which includes a few thousand widgets, Microsoft has had a developer program around for years: The company says its software developers kit for Windows Mobile 6 has been downloaded some 3 million times, and that some 18,000 consumer apps are available for Windows Mobile phones in the U.S.
So it seems what Microsoft could use most in the short term is a better marketing plan — to cut through some of the Apple and Google noise and remind consumers that they exist. Right now, few people are probably saying, “Gotta get me one of those Microsoft phones.” But as Apple, RIM, and Google (GOOG) expand their efforts, Microsoft will have to solve that somehow.
In the longer term, the company will have to sort through its mobile acquisitions, including T-Mobile Sidekick software maker Danger, and figure out a stronger suite of services — free “push” Hotmail, perhaps? — and gadgets — a Zune phone? — to compete in a smartphone market that’s only going to get more complicated.
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