5 Ways Steve Ballmer Can Save Microsoft's Mobile Bacon

3. Decide Who You Are

A major challenge is to figure out what Microsoft mobile is all about -- that is, what kind of mobile platform you are. The Windows Phone 7 demos thus far focus on a social networking metaphor. Palm had a similar marketing pitch but didn't really make it the organizing primciple of its WebOS.

I get the attraction: 20-somethings spend much more time texting and tweeting and Facebooking than they do emailing or making voice calls. If you believe that behavior will carry over into their 30s, you want adopt their behavior to become their preferred platform and displace Apple and Google as the young generation ages.

If that's the case, be explicit about it. If owning the 20-somethings is your strategy but you pretend to be all things to all people, you'll peeve a lot of users, including most in business. You can't afford that lack of trust. Better to say who you are aimed at so that the rest of us don't feel misled.

Conversely, if you want the new mobile platform to be multigenerational and appealing to both personal and business uses -- which your Windows Mobile 7 team has suggested -- you'd better stop the social networking fixation as your operating system's organizing principle. It won't work for most of us.

Instead, make great social networking apps that you provide with the OS, but don't impose the social betworking style of constant interruption and fractional, reactive thinking on the operating system as a whole. Likewise, don't market it as a social networking device but really deliver a multipurpose device; you'll tee off the 20-somethings that way, perhaps forever.

In other words, figure out what kind of OS you are and deliver -- no apologies, no fudges.

4. Drop the Windows Name

You should not call the operating system "Windows" anything. It's not Windows. That advice doesn't mean that Windows is bad; it means that the mobile OS is not a version of Windows but is instead its own thing. There's a reason Apple doesn't call the iPhone "mobile Mac OS X," even though it's based on Mac OS X. Along the same lines, Google was smart enough not to rename the Android OS it acquired to Chrome OS, the name of its forthcoming Web-device OS. Be as smart as they are.

While you're at it, drop any Windows dependencies. That's hard for Microsoft, given its historic desire to make Windows the basis of everything, but it's a mistake. If Apple can learn to embrace Windows for its broad services like iTunes and MobileMe, and actively support Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync email protocol, so can you make Zune and Studio platform-neutral. After all, you want everyone to embrace your mobile platform, right? The Windows/Mac wars are history, as far as mobile users are concerned. Stop fighting that old battle in this new realm.

5. Kill the Kin

The Kin was a really stupid idea. When everyone is wondering if Microsoft can even take part in the mobile game, you come onto the field ready to play Twister when everyone else is limbering up for the baseball championship.

Even more stupid was calling it a Windows Phone -- that's sure to confuse its grab bag of an operating system with the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 OS that is supposed to be your reset moment. The Kin has some interesting ideas around social networking and, with the Kin Studio, social memory, but reviewers agree the Kin device and the OS are dogs.

I can't believe you think it's a successful product in the eyes of the market. You're repeating your Vista blindness here. You need to put those dogs down, so when the real Microsoft mobile OS ships, the Kin is long forgotten. Pull the Kin from the market today, and recommend its team look for jobs at a competitor, where they might do you more food (maybe Nokia?).

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.

Don't forget to be part of the InfoWorld Mobile Patrol: Send in your tips, complaints, news, and ideas to comments@infoworldmobile.com. Thanks!

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.

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