Microsoft Prepares For Its Mobile Super Bowl

Just over a week after the NFL Super Bowl next month, Microsoft will take part in its own "Super Bowl" at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, Spain. That's where Microsoft is expected to talk in some level of detail about Windows Mobile 7, a release that could make or break the software giant's future in the mobility market.

Precious little is known about Windows Mobile 7. Last November, Phil Moore, Microsoft's head of mobility in the U.K., let slip that Windows Mobile 7 had been delayed until late 2010 and would include features that appeal both to enterprises and consumers. Earlier this week, The Bright Side Of News, quoting unnamed sources from a number of chipmakers and handset manufacturers, said that Windows Mobile 7 has been "definitely delayed" until 2011.

Officially, Microsoft has danced around questions about Windows Mobile 7 with the dexterity of a Russian gymnast, refusing to confirm or deny the 2011 date -- or any other details.

"We have steadily delivered on our commitment to ship additional features and services through a regular stream of exciting new devices. We're always working on future versions and have nothing new to announce," a Microsoft spokesperson said in response to an e-mail requesting comment on the 2011 release date.

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However, there's reason to believe that Microsoft will break the Windows Mobile 7 cone of silence next month at the Mobile World Congress event. In a briefing last week with financial analysts, Robbie Bach, president of the Entertainment and Devices division at Microsoft, was peppered with questions about the timing of Windows Mobile 7's arrival. Being careful not to mention Windows Mobile 7 by name, Bach said Microsoft is aware that Windows Mobile has been too "business focused" and not "modern" enough.

More importantly, Bach hinted that Microsoft will be showing off changes to Windows Mobile at MWC that address these very issues. "I'm certainly confident people are going to see it as something that's differentiated and something that really does move the bar forward, not in an evolutionary way from where we are today, but it's something that feels, looks, acts and performs completely different," Bach told analysts.

In the MWC press materials, Microsoft says it will talk about plans to "align its consumer vision" and "grow opportunities for the mobile industry as a whole." Microsoft will also reveal its plans to meet the challenges of economic uncertainty and intensifying mobile industry competition, according to the press materials.

Whatever Microsoft ends up discussing at MWC, it had better be impressive. Windows Mobile's market share has been steadily slipping for months, and repeated Windows Mobile 7 delays have caused Microsoft's handset partners to shift their development efforts to Google's Android OS. In the Microsoft channel, meanwhile, this has solidified the notion that Windows Mobile has fallen irreparably behind.

"Microsoft just hasn't put enough effort into Windows Mobile development. Windows Mobile 6.5 was an embarrassingly empty update, said Marc Harrison, president of Silicon East, a Microsoft solution provider in Manalapan, N.J. "As I see it, Microsoft's only potential salvation at this point would be to speed up the release of Windows Mobile 7."

Next: The Google Nexus One Effect

Google's move to start selling its Nexus One smartphone directly to customers has increased the pressure on Microsoft to change its mobile market strategy. Microsoft last year was rumored to be developing a Microsoft branded smartphone called 'Pink', but such a move would run counter to the software giant's long held policy of not competing directly with its mobile partners.

At CES, Bach suggested that Nexus One could alienate handset makers that have been working with Android and drive them into the waiting arms of Microsoft. "Google's announcement sends a signal where they're going to place their commitment. That will create some opportunities for us and we'll pursue them," Bach said in an interview with Bloomberg.

However, in the financial analyst meeting, Bach said the fact that Apple and Google are making their own hardware allows them to keep in closer touch with the pulse of consumer demand. According to Bach, that's one reason why Microsoft launched its Windows Phone brand last year.

"What that means is more volume for the products that are getting the marketing spend. It's not a crazy idea," Bach told analysts. "So, that's an additional muscle we have to build."

Ken Winell, CEO of ExpertCollab, a SharePoint-focused solution provider in Florham Park, N.J., believes Microsoft could benefit from taking a page from Google's Nexus One playbook and releasing a device that offers functionality that goes beyond what Windows Mobile currently offers.

"Microsoft can pay enough money for a manufacturer -- HTC would have been ideal -- to develop a handheld device with a revamped Windows Mobile operating system that is snappy, user friendly and which comes in only one form factor," Winell said.

Microsoft has to make a dramatic comeback to get back into the mobile competition, and solution providers say the company is well aware that whatever Windows Mobile 7 ultimately brings will have to be game-changing.

Given the pace with which the mobile industry is moving, Microsoft will have to bring its A-game to the MWC event next month. Anything less will just add more fuel to the notion that it's fallen too far behind in the mobile space.