Steve Ballmer is Right!

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Sad news: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been found to be completely insane. The expert doing the declaring is my fictional friend Robert X. Cringely of InfoWorld, and he bases his diagnosis on a Ballmer quote in a recent story.

Ballmer is speaking of Windows Phone 7, which shipped internationally last month and hits the US next week:

"We're early; there's no question we're early," Ballmer said at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference. "I think we kind of nailed it. When you see it, you just go ‘ooooh.'"

Cringe thinks that Microsoft is anything but "early" to the smartphone game, and that if Ballmer thinks otherwise he's delusional:

I suppose if we're talking geological time, then Ballmer's right, Microsoft is on the cusp of the smartphone epoch, and the dinosaurs just went for a dip in the tar pits. But in a market where a three-month-old device needs to be checked for liver spots and signs of dementia, spotting the competition three-plus years and then coming up with something that almost meets the smartphone standards set in 2007 is not exactly being early. It's certainly not "nailing" it - unless we're talking about a coffin.

Now, yanking Steve Ballmer's chain is always fun, and I know of few tech pundits who can resist an opportunity to bring up the "Monkey Boy" video. (Cringe makes the obligatory reference in his piece, and-whoops!-I just did, too.) The period from the announcement of the iPhone in January of 2007 until Windows Phone 7′s release was an astonishingly long dead zone for Microsoft in the phone business, during which it had no credible offering. And while Windows Phone 7 is impressive in multiple ways, Microsoft has still plenty more catching up to do before anyone at Apple or Google breaks into a sweat.

Here's the thing, though. If what Ballmer is saying is that we're still early in the smartphone era-as usual with his pronouncements, definitive interpretations are tricky-he's absolutely right. This is a revolution that's still just getting underway, and there's plenty of time left for new entrants to join the game in progress. And maybe even win it.

If smartphones were a mature market that weren't subject to lots more change, just about all of the Americans who might own a smartphone would own a smartphone. Instead, smartphones remain less common than you'd tend to think if you read tech blogs and/or live in a major metropolitan area near a large ocean. How many of us own a smartphone? Depending on who you believe, it's over half or 28 percent or possibly 17 percent. But nobody says it's 100 percent or anywhere close.

No, the smartphone is like the PC was in the 1980s and early 1990s-a gadget that's on its way to near-universal adoption, but which isn't there yet. It's a young product category, and plenty of smart people haven't yet bought into it.

You don't have to analyze Microsoft's phone strategy very carefully to see that it's reaching out to these smart late adopters rather than trying to convince iPhone fans and Android aficionados to switch. That's obvious from the way its entertaining TV ads for Windows Phone 7 show smartphone owners as lame, self-involved nerds. "Don't be like these people," is the message. "Buy a Windows Phone 7 handset."

I'm not saying it's a winning gameplan, or that Windows Phone 7 is the mobile OS that will finally win smartphone unbelievers over. But this much I'm confident of: A couple of decades from now, we'll look back at 2010 as being really early in the history of smartphones, before most of the interesting stuff happened. Come 2030, iOS 24 and Android 12.7 "Salt Water Taffy" may be around, but they're not going to be the whole story.

Or to put it another way: Steve Ballmer may or may not be right about Windows Phone 7, but he's right about smartphones-and he's definitely not deranged.

This story, "Steve Ballmer is Right!" was originally published by Technologizer.

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