Market Watch: Windows Mobile

The iPhone and others are taking a bigger share of the market from Windows Mobile. What does its future hold?

The past few months have seen several new smartphones get headlines with their releases, and every new version of the iPhone's software makes waves, so it can be easy to forget Windows Mobile. The OS isn't flashy, but it has a solid place in enterprises. The question is, can it hold onto this place in the face of fierce competition?

The Windows Mobile Phone
Windows Mobile's main advantage is its ability to integrate with Exchange. While its competitors have been making strides in increasing their compatibility with Exchange, they lag behind Windows Mobile. For example, before the 3.0 software upgrade, iPhone users couldn't send meeting requests.

Beyond Exchange integration, a fully Microsoft mobile ecosystem gives you some other advantages. System Center Mobile Device Manager (SCMDM) is a good example of how much the company's products work together. SCMDM integrates Windows Mobile 6.1 or later phones into a company's Active Directory (AD) infrastructure. Aimed at the enterprise market, SCMDM gives administrators control over the company's smartphones similar to what it already has over desktops and laptops.

With SCMDM, smartphones get enhanced VPN functions and optimized connections. SCMDM also provides extra security, letting you use AD credentials on phones and providing a remote wipe function to destroy sensitive data on a lost phone. (See this article for an in-depth look at SCMDM)

If you don't mind getting your mobile management software from companies other than Microsoft, this advantage might not be so important for you. In fact, several companies have capitalized on the trend toward businesses with multiple types of smart phones and are now offering multi-platform smartphone management, allowing a company to have users on several different smartphone OSs but still manage all the phones.

Another strength of Windows Mobile is also one of its weaknesses. Unlike the iPhone OS (or, to various degrees, other smartphone OSs such as PalmOS), Windows Mobile devices are manufactured by many different companies and available on many different kinds of hardware. This means Windows Mobile phones can be found on many different carriers and at many different prices, but it also means that two different Windows Mobile phones might not be able to run the same software, will each have different quirks, and may have UIs that look very different from one another.

Market Research Firm Canalys reported in August that 3.4 million phones with Microsoft Operating systems were sold in the second quarter of 2009, 9 percent of smartphone sales. In the same quarter, Apple sold 5.2 million phones (13.7 percent), RIM sold 8 million (20 percent) and Symbian was on 19.2 million smartphones (50.3 percent). Canalys reported Microsoft's share of the market is down from 14.3 percent in the second quarter of 2008. In an earlier release, Canalys reported Microsoft had 12.2 percent of the market in the third quarter of 2007.

The Future
Phones running Windows Mobile 6.5 were set to be released by October 6, so they should be available by the time you're reading this. There are a few new features this version, but the general opinion of those who've used it is that 6.5 isn't much more than an update to the UI. The new UI is designed to work better with touch screen devices. There's also a new web browser, said to be a substantial improvement over the old one, and Windows Marketplace for Mobile, a way for Windows Mobile users to purchase. See Paul Thurrott's preview of Windows Mobile 6.5 for more.

One of the most touted features in Windows Mobile 6.5, My Phone, is actually available to most phones that run Windows Mobile 6 or later. My Phone automatically backs up your contacts, calendar information, text messages, photos, and other information from your phone to the My Phone site. My Phone is a free service and is similar to the Apple service MobileMe, which also synchronizes email and data, but which has an annual service fee.

Like the iPhone, My Phone seems to be aimed at consumers, not enterprises. Some of My Phone's functions don't work if your phone already syncs with Exchange, and each My Phone account is limited to 200MB of backups. See Jeff James' look at the My Phone beta.

The next version of Windows Mobile is supposed to be a much larger upgrade. Those in the know say that Windows Mobile 7 is a new OS, being written from the ground up, and that it will be done by the end of 2010 at the earliest. There's not much solid information out there about Windows Mobile 7, however, so I won't make any predictions.

The Bottom Line
The iPhone is obviously still a consumer-focused device, but its upgrades have shown Apple is willing to go after the business market, too. And the iPhone has an undeniable popularity—it's new, fashionable, and very easy to expand with software for both entertainment and work. As both IT pros and management pick up the iPhone on its own merits, businesses may have no choice but to support the iPhone. Palm and Blackberry are also joining the trend of smartphones for consumers, advertising low- and high-end devices directly to consumers. And newer phone OSs such as Android and other Linux variations.

Windows Mobile might be losing the war for what consumers think of when they think of smartphones, but for now, it still has a substantial lead in its integration with Exchange and System Center. In the long run, if its competitors improve their business functions and still manage to capture minds and consumer loyalty, Windows Mobile could be in for some rough times.

Cloud computing is a wild card in the smartphone arena. The iPhone's app store is very popular and all of its competitors seem to want to recreate its success, but many of its apps aren't much more than web pages launched like applications. If every smartphone soon sports a high-quality web browser and always-on Internet access, developers could choose to develop web applications tailored to smartphones instead of developing applications for each phone's OS. Cloud computing from a smartphone makes sense—Internet access is delivered wirelessly, so there's a lot less concern about being stuck without Internet than with a Wi-Fi-based laptop, and because of the possibility of loss or theft, it's already a bad idea to keep too much data stored locally on a phone. Just as some predict a near future when desktop OSs will be irrelevant in favor of the cloud, what OS your phone runs could, some day, be unimportant.

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