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How Windows Mobile Is Becoming Microsoft's New Vista

Now that Windows 7 is out the door, Microsoft can focus more attention on what is quickly becoming one of its biggest sore spots: Windows Mobile.

As was the case with Vista, repeated Windows Mobile 7 delays are frustrating Microsoft's longtime industry partners. Motorola earlier this year shifted its focus away from Windows Mobile in favor of Google Android devices. Verizon, which has been tied to rumors about Microsoft's struggling Pink smartphone project, recently kicked off a marketing push for Droid, Motorola's Android powered handset, and may also have decided to move on.

Microsoft's channel partners, meanwhile, are seeing dwindling demand for Windows Mobile-related business. "We've stopped working with Windows Mobile because our client base isn't asking for it," said Stuart Crawford, business development manager at Bulletproof Infotech, a solution provider in Red Deer, Alberta. "We've gone to Blackberry internally, and we're seeing a lot of clients asking for iPhone. I'm a strong Microsoft advocate, but there are too many challenges with Windows Mobile."

Now along comes Windows 7, which shows what great things can happen when Microsoft and its partner ecosystem are collaborating and clicking on all cylinders. The pressure is on Microsoft to hit a home run with Windows Mobile 7, but that could conceivably lead to the kind of bloated, complex feature set that helped doom Vista. To further the baseball analogy, Microsoft is so far behind in the mobile game at this point that it needs to at least get a couple runners on base before it starts swinging for the fences.

"Windows Mobile is still prevalent, it's just not beloved," said Tim Huckaby, CEO at InterKnowlogy, a Microsoft Gold partner in Carlsbad, Calif. "It's likely that Microsoft is coming quickly with an answer. When Windows Mobile ships, however, it's got to be a winner, it cannot be another Vista, and Microsoft knows it."

But if a Microsoft job posting that surfaced back in March is any indication, Microsoft isn't just trying to catch-up, it wants to transform the mobile business entirely. The posting describes what Microsoft hopes to achieve with Windows Mobile 7 in the following terms: "We aren't just building a me-too iPhone or RIM competitor; we're changing the way customers use and experience their device," the job posting read.

Windows Mobile 7, originally slated for release last year, isn't expected to arrive until spring of 2010 at the earliest. Microsoft executives have said tantalizingly little about what Windows Mobile 7 will include, although multi-touch and gesture recognition support are believed to be part of the release. Microsoft has also said that none of the sessions at next month's Professional Developer Conference will focus on Windows Mobile 7.

In April 2008, CEO Steve Ballmer described Windows Mobile 7 to MVP partners as "as an area of major excitement and innovation." But in a meeting with Silicon Valley venture capitalists last month, Ballmer spoke of Microsoft's Windows Mobile missteps in frank terms and said Microsoft has taken steps to correct them.

Microsoft simply hasn't kept pace with the fast moving mobile device market, and the collective industry yawn that accompanied the arrival of Windows Mobile 6.5 devices earlier this month is just the latest example. Meanwhile, Research In Motion, Apple, Google, and Palm have been churning out new smartphones with clocklike regularity.

Microsoft partners aren't happy with the way things have played out in the Windows Mobile group, but they're still expecting Microsoft to make a comeback. Scott Stanfield, CEO of Vertigo Software, a Richmond, Calif.-based software development firm, doesn't see anything fundamentally wrong with Microsoft's approach to Windows Mobile.

"Microsoft's strategy is a good one: They enable a world class body of support for partners, and we use one platform for development, Windows, with one set of tools and technologies," said Stanfield.

Stanfield still believes that Microsoft can make up lost ground but acknowledges that time is not on its side given the fast product release pace of Microsoft's mobile rivals. "Windows Mobile has troubles that are out of our control, and it's now a matter of how quickly they can bring Windows Mobile 7 to market before the clock runs out," he said.

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