Trying the Apple strategy: Microsoft buys Nokia's mobile business

Microsoft decides to take its post-PC fate into its own hands rather than rely on hardware partners any longer

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It's hard to see how buying Nokia will change anything, because the fundamental flaw in both the tablets and smartphones is the same: Microsoft's operating systems, not the hardware running them. Still, Nokia's Lumia line has been getting some traction, especially as BlackBerry's comeback attempt fizzled, leaving Windows Phone as the only alternative to Apple and Google.

Ballmer told Microsoft employees in announcing the Microsoft deal that "we cannot risk having Google or Apple foreclose app innovation, integration, distribution, or economics." In other words, he sees Google and Apple pushing Microsoft aside as the PC market continues to decline and the Nokia purchase is a Hail Mary bet to take them on playing their own game.

It may be Microsoft's only option, but being Apple requires a focus on quality, user experience, and platform centrism that Microsoft hasn't demonstrated. Its refusal to listen to complaints about Windows 8 and now Windows 8.1 show it may be incapable of truly listening.

Microsoft seems more like Google in that it's more a conglomerate of sometimes-related products that it can leverage to build customer loyalty; the Office/Windows/SharePoint combination is a great example. But Google's free licensing has made it the most popular mobile operating system available, with most manufacturers having adopted it. By contrast, Nokia was the only real supporter of Windows Phone, with HTC and Samsung dabbling in it. I don't see how Microsoft changes that game by buying Nokia.

In fact, Microsoft's purchase of Nokia is likely to upset Windows Phone licensees. Similarly, Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility made other Android manufacturers nervous, which caused Samsung to make its Galaxy devices more clearly different and to invest in the Tizen open source platform. And Microsoft's Surface effort caused some of its PC partners to criticize Microsoft publicly.

Microsoft knows that, so its announcement of the Nokia purchase makes a point to say that the deal will help strengthen all Microsoft mobile partners, such as bolstering Nokia's Here mapping effort which is seen as a counterweight to Google's dominant services. But the Microsoft announcement also touts the synergy that the Nokia purchase brings to Microsoft's mobile designs.

You can't have it both ways, and it's clear to me that the Nokia purchase is about not having to rely on hardware partners any longer. After all, Nokia's Lumias account for 80 percent of Windows Phone sales. It essentially is the Windows Phone company -- is a stark contrast to Google's Motorola Mobility, which is a minor player in that market.

Microsoft is going to own the challenge of blocking Apple and Google from dominating the post-PC market. It's a bold, perhaps necessary bet -- but not a sure one.

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