What Steve Ballmer needs to do to save Microsoft's mobile bacon

A wasted decade on Windows Mobile threatens Microsoft's relevance in the future of computing

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If you really think you need a separate social networking phone for 20-somethings, fine. Make that a product line in your new mobile platform -- but be sure to have a product line for grownups that isn't about social networking. Right now, both the Kin and the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 are focused on a social networking approach to mobile. Why are you competing with yourself? At the very least, don't do so until you can first successfully compete with Apple and Google.

None of this will be easy
Most of the advice in this blog post goes against Microsoft's standard operating procedure. Steve, most of the mistakes I've highlighted have occurred under your watch as CEO and so are your responsibility -- Windows 6.5 and Kin for darned sure.

Getting rid of the leadership that has failed you is a good step, and it served you well when you finally owned up to the debacle that was Vista, clearing the path for the cleaned-up version known as Windows 7. But your challenge here is actually greater than fixing Vista.

Windows 7 is essentially a retooling of Vista; your next mobile OS is a new mobile OS, not a retooling of Windows Mobile. Starting over should be freeing, and what little I've seen of Windows Phone 7 indicates there is some truly new thinking involved. But even if it is freeing, starting over is not easy, and if you're using the same team that got and kept you in this mess, it's even harder. Replacing the generals is likely not enough.

Plus, fixing the corrosive Microsoft culture of "we'll get it right enough a few versions out" is an even tougher challenge. Corporate cultures are hard to change, and bad ones are like the Ebola virus: They infect anyone new very fast. You may want to separate this group from Microsoft, as if it were a separate company. Palm essentially had to do a engineering and leadership transplant to end years of destructive management maneuvering before it could create WebOS, but it lost its window of opportunity and came out with something that was a 90 percent solution to what Apple was already offering. You face the same danger.

You really have just this year to get this right. The iPhone is about to get its fourth OS version in the next few weeks, as well as new hardware. Apple has already moved the market past the smartphone to the slate with the iPad, yet Microsoft hasn't even figured out the smartphone yet. Google now seems to be getting its act together for Android and could have a credible iPhone alternative in place by the holidays. RIM's BlackBerry wil continue to decline to a core "all we want is email" customer base, but that customer base is as fiercely loyal as an Apple fanboy. There's little space for Microsoft in all of this.

So, Steve, you need to hit a home run -- actually, you need to hit it out of the park -- for the Christmas holidays. After that, your only real chance is for Android to implode under the weight of too many variations or for Apple to lose Steve Jobs and thus interrupt the driving force behind its band of killer designers. Counting on someone else's misfortune is not a likely path to victory.

Good luck -- you'll need that along with good technology and good management.

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This article, "What Steve Ballmer needs to do to save Microsoft's mobile bacon," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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