Microsoft's mobile effort: back to the future?

Windows Phone 7 launched on 10 devices over 60 carriers in over 30 countries with 1.5 million of channel inventory in 6 weeks. Given the breadth of distribution, that number is not huge, amounting to less than 10k phones per operator.

Curiously, Windows Mobile was still selling in significant volumes last quarter. Maybe even higher than WP7 is selling now. In Q3 2009 Canalys reported 3.6 million WinMo units sold. In Q3 2010  Gartner estimated 2.3 million were sold through to end users. Even nine months ago Windows Mobile was running at 3.7 million units or over 1.8 million every six weeks.

Microsoft also announced they have 18,000 developers with 4,000 apps on the WP7 marketplace. That’s one developer for every 83 devices in inventory.

Microsoft’s Achim Berg:

our numbers are similar to the performance of other first generation mobile platforms…

We’re comfortable with where we are, and we are here for the long run; Windows Phone 7 is just the beginning.

In terms of first generation platforms, I assume he is referring to Android and iPhone. That claim of similar volume growth is perhaps a bit too optimistic. However, he’s very wrong about WP7 being the beginning for Microsoft’s efforts in mobile. Not even close.

Microsoft has had mobile software products in the market for over a decade. In 2003 Gartner declared that Microsoft would sweep Symbian aside. In 2006 they were the odds-on favorites to win the mobile platform game on the basis of developer support.

Microsoft’s Windows Mobile was selling more in 2003 than Microsoft’s Windows Phone is selling in 2010. At the time, Microsoft also boasted of having a huge developer base (larger, in fact, than the number of users of the product; their .NET developer base being counted as mobile developers.)

Furthermore, prior to the launch of iPhone’s App Store, Microsoft spokespersons scoffed at the idea that Apple could field a catalog larger than Windows Mobile which led with over 13,000 apps in August of 2008.

Dragging out these old figures isn’t meant to deride Microsoft. They were not alone in failing to capitalize on early leads in mobile. Palm, Nokia, DoCoMo and Qualcomm all failed. RIM is arguably failing as we speak. Some have argued that Apple is also about to be undone by Android.

The point is that dramatic, violent change was possible even five years after foothold markets were established.

The question for today is: Is it still possible? Can a new platform still gain traction?

Microsoft is clearly betting that it can. Their seemingly quixotic attack on the market can only be justified on the basis that it’s still early days. They must reason that un-penetrated markets are huge and that the existing platforms are not sticky enough to prevent switching.

At least one analyst agrees. IDC made the forecast that 32 million “Windows Mobile/Phone” devices will sell during all of 2011. I took issue with those forecasts at the time but if they deliver that volume they will get around 10% share, enough to stay on the map. If they don’t then Microsoft will look more like Mobile Zune than Mobile Windows. The stakes are high.

So even though they may have airbrushed Windows Mobile from history, Microsoft’s current strategy is a direct consequence of them having failed with a seemingly strong platform.