In mobile and on the desktop, Microsoft advances to the rear

Unable to compete with the iPhone, Microsoft embraces Symbian. It also befuddles desktop users with the loony Windows 7 upgrade grid

It's been a bad 10 days for Microsoft. First it unveils an insanely complicated Windows 7 upgrade grid that's guaranteed to turn off users and give Apple a boatload of snarky marketing material for the month that its Mac OS X Snow Leopard will be available before Windows 7 ships. Then a federal judge tells the company it can't sell Microsoft Word in the United States.

And now we have the "Finnish connection," a strategic move that brings to mind Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. By partnering with Nokia to offer Microsoft Office on Nokia's Symbian OS-based smartphones, Microsoft is admitting that it can't compete with Apple on the mobile front and pounds yet another nail in the coffin of Windows Mobile. None of these events is the biggest deal in the world, but taken collectively, they point out yet again that Microsoft is standing on a very slippery slope.

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Mobile users: Bye-bye WinMo, hello Symbian

Yeah, that's what I want for Christmas: a Nokia phone running Microsoft Office. I can't think of any prospect less appealing, but that's what the "Finnish connection" is going to deliver.

In case you thought the alliance is meant to challenge Apple and the iPhone, think again. "This is really about creating a formidable challenge for RIM rather than anyone else," Nokia executive vice president Kai Oistamo said in a conference call on Wednesday. (As part of that strategy, the nominal driver of the Symbian OS, the Symbian Foundation, has set an aggressive release plan.)

Even that's going to take some time. The first Microsoft product moved to Symbian will be the Communicator instant messaging app, slated for next year. It's likely that products such as Excel, PowerPoint, and Word won't arrive until 2011. Will the legions of CrackBerry addicts give up their habits to peer at Excel spreadsheets on tiny screens? I doubt it. And in the meantime, today they can happily edit Office files using DataViz's Documents to Go, a basic version of which many carriers preinstall on their BlackBerry devices.

Even more puzzling is what the "Finnish connection" means for Windows Mobile. One of WinMo's biggest selling points is that it is the only mobile OS that runs Office. I don't want to do that, but some people do. So why pull the rug out from under your own product, especially with the perpetually impending launch of the not-so-well-liked Windows Mobile 6.5? I suppose Microsoft is hedging its bets, and it sees the Nokia deal as another step in the process of Webifying Office and competing with Google and other online productivity apps.

But all of that smacks of weakness and even desperation. The slope is getting mighty slippery.

Windows users: Get ready to pay "the Microsoft tax"
As Microsoft tries to stay balanced on the skippery slope that is mobie computing, it's done itself no favors recently with its hoped-for antidote to the disaster that was Vista: the forthcoming Windows 7. First, it annoyed enterprise customers with a dumb policy (since rescinded) to push IT off Windows XP faster than was realistic. Then CEO Steve Ballmer confirmed plans to force PC makers to hobble their netbooks if they want to use the Windows 7 Starter Edition. Now, it's confusing regular users with its Windows 7 upgrade options.

[ Get the scoop on the new Windows 7 with the InfoWorld editors' 21-page Windows 7 Deep Dive PDF report. | Stay ahead of Windows technology with InfoWorld's Enterprise Desktop blog and Technology: Windows newsletter. ]

As veteran tech observer Joe Wilcox pointed out the other day, Microsoft and its apologists love to talk about the "Apple tax," a reference to the higher prices generally charged for Apple products. But what about the hours and hours of tedious labor that consumers and IT will be forced to devote to the hideously complicated task of upgrading XP or Vista to Windows 7? Let's call that the Microsoft tax.

Take a look at the grid that Microsoft gave to the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg. There are 66 (count 'em!) possible combinations. Only 14 allow for an "in-place upgrade," meaning your existing applications and preferences are retained. The others require a "custom install," which means backing up everything to an external device, wiping the hard drive, and reinstalling all your applications, settings, and data.

How much time will take? And you'll get paid how much for those hours and hours of fun?

By all accounts, Windows 7 will certainly be an improvement over the justly unpopular Vista. But the difficulty of performing the upgrade is a great reminder of the unreasonable demands Microsoft makes of its customers.

On the other hand, the grid is good news for PC makers. That's because anyone who really wants to run Windows 7 and gives the matter a bit of thought will not upgrade, but instead buy a new machine with the OS pre-installed. It will also give Apple fodder for more funny ads, and generate incremental Mac sales as Windows users (it won't be all that many) decide to switch.

To be clear, the grid doesn't just represent a marketing blunder. Indeed, Microsoft probably did the right thing in putting it out there. The problem is the company's inability to develop an upgrade path free of infuriating complications.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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