Can Microsoft Rebound in the Mobile Computer Space?

Published on January 14, 2013

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A few years ago, nearly every mobile computer ran a version of Windows®, with handheld computers running Windows CE or Windows Mobile, and forklift-mounted computers running Windows XP or Windows 7. Then Microsoft® announced a significant change in its strategy for Windows Mobile. “We started changing the brand strategy with Windows Mobile (WM) 6.5,” said Aaron Woodman, the director of Microsoft’s Mobile Communications Business, in 2010. The new brand? Windows Phone®. In other words, Windows Mobile would now be called Windows Phone.

While it ran on millions of mobile computers, Windows Mobile ran on many more phones. And it was getting its clocked cleaned by two new phone operating systems: Apple’s iPhone Operating System (iOS) and Google’s Android®. Microsoft felt that it needed to reintroduce its mobile operating system by rebranding it and making radical changes to the user interface. The result was Windows Phone.

While many applauded Microsoft’s strategy, mobile computer makers were surprised and confused by it. Were they supposed to run a phone operating system on their mobile computers? If so, then why choose Microsoft’s phone operating system, which was not taking the market by storm but running a distant third to Android and iOS? With iOS available only on Apple devices, perhaps it was time to give Android a try.

Recognizing that its rebranding of Windows Mobile had confused and upset many of its embedded customers, Microsoft announced a roadmap for Windows CE and Windows Mobile, renaming the former to Windows Embedded Compact (WEC) and the latter to Windows Embedded Handheld (WEH). But it was too late to stop the majority of handheld mobile computer makers from “hedging their bets” with Android. They began designing computers that could run Windows Embedded or Android. Those devices began hitting the market last year, and this year dozens more will be released.

Ironically, Windows Phone 7 has a WEC 7 core.

Now Microsoft has launched Windows 8, which is positioned as a unified operating system for all types and sizes of computers. Windows 8 succeeds not just Windows 7 but also Windows Embedded. For example, Windows Phone 8 has a Windows 8 core.

Will Windows 8 enable Microsoft to recapture mobile computers that have been lost to Android? We won’t know for a few years. While consumer devices such as smartphones and laptops have design cycles of less than a year, mobile computers have comparatively long design cycles of 18-24 months. The first Windows 8 mobile computers probably will not make their debuts until next year, likely the second half of next year. By then, we’ll know how successful Windows 8 has been on consumer devices. If Microsoft continues to have a single-digit share of the smartphone market, then the mobile computer migration away from Windows is likely to continue.