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Microsoft to Mobile Customers: Choice is a Bad Thing (and Linux Will Lose)

Last week, David Coursey reported that Microsoft entertainment and devices boss Robbie Bach made the prediction in an analyst briefing that Linux on mobile will lose. Why? It’s choice is a bad thing for customers and that there is too much Linux in the mobile marketplace

By Bach’s count there are 17 variants of Linux available on mobile phones. He sees this as a bad thing for customers. We, unsurprisingly, see this as a bad thing for Microsoft.

Technology markets are shaped by momentum. When a company bets on a technology, it’s not a one-time decision. They must live with that choice for years. Ecosystems around technology are as important as the technology itself, since you need partners and developers to actually make something of it. This is why I take issue with his pronouncement that Linux will not do as well as Microsoft mobile. He may have a point that individual variants of Linux may come and go. We will likely see moves both up and down for specific versions of a mobile OS using Linux. We’ve seen it in the enterprise distribution market.

But Linux as the underlying platform of such mobile offerings as Android, Moblin and many more is growing exponentially, and precisely because it affords this choice. Palm, Motorola and others have jumped ship from Windows Mobile to Linux-based offerings in recent years. LG is now using Android on 50% of its handsets. According to Gartner Group, Windows Mobile’s market share fell to 7.9 percent in the third quarter of 2009 down from 11.1 percent the same quarter of last year.

The problem with Microsoft’s Windows Mobile is not just the technology, it’s the business model. Bach dismissed the recent decline in marketshare Microsoft has been experiencing as “not a business problem per se,” but people I know in the mobile market disagree.

Here’s why:

  • With Windows Mobile, carriers and handset manufactuers have to pay Microsoft a per-device charge. With Linux-based platforms this does not exist.
  • Windows Mobile has draconian branding and licensing restrictions. Basically Microsoft wants to “own the glass.” With Linux you have a multiple of ways to brand and market your product, making it your product. Linux is the base of many different distributions because of the flexibility it offers.

Is working with Linux more complex than with Windows Mobile? Probably, since with Linux carriers and hand set manufacturers actually have to make a choice in what technology they use and how they brand their products, instead of getting the technology and pricing dictated to them from Redmond. The current consolidation to Linux on mobile is far less complex than just a few years ago when hand set manufacturers had to build from scratch their own OS if they didn’t want to give up a big percentage of their margins to Microsoft. Linux has given them the flexibility they need while making the building of a handset and ecosystem development simpler. Is it more complex than the one size fits all approach of Microsoft? Definitely. But it’s also more profitable.

I suppose if he truly believes choice is a bad thing, he may truly believe Linux will lose, but unfortunately the market momentum and adoption numbers are proving quite the opposite.

 

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