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Microsoft's advances in mobile may hit a wall

(MoneyWatch) Microsoft (MSFT) is desperate for a mobile computing hit. Windows Phone has fizzled so far, leaving the tablet market for the software giant to make some headway.

Research firm IDC expects Microsoft to gain ground in the crowded tablet business over the next few years, with Windows-based devices projected to have roughly 10 percent market share by 2016. That would still represent only a small sliver of the market. iPads will constitute nearly half the market, while some 40 percent will consist of Android-based tablets, IDC projects. But it would be an improvement over what Microsoft has seen in smartphones since it introduced the Windows Phone.

Such long-term forecasts aside, there is some reason to think Microsoft may be making faster strides in mobile. Some comes from IDC, which says that Windows tablets have gone from 1 percent of the market in 2011 to 2.9 percent this year with the advent of Windows 8, the first version of Microsoft's operating system designed to work smoothly with touchscreens.

Yet there are other, more meaningful signs that Microsoft is gaining acceptance for its Windows 8 and Windows RT mobile platforms. And those emanate not from trends in the consumer end of the mobile tech market, but rather in corporate IT. At an event I attended in New York earlier this week, a Bank of America (BAC) IT executive in charge of mobile app development said that the company had approximately 10 million users of its smartphone and tablet apps. Over the last month, the banking firm saw 100,000 users register with a Windows RT device, significant growth for a new platform.

At the same event, an Accenture mobility consultant for the financial services industry said that for a long time, his clients talked only of Google (GOOG) Android and Apple (AAPL) iOS. But now "Windows RT is definitely on their maps," the consultant said.

Such anecdotes are of course no promise of raging success in the highly competitive mobile sector. But they are an indication of a generally favorable market response to Windows tablets.

Conversely, it could be a case of too little, too late. Microsoft's success over its history has stemmed either directly or indirectly from its control of client computing. Having a virtual monopoly on desktops and laptops let the company build its Office suite of products into the clear office productivity leader. That led to acceptance of Windows tools and even servers.

But as computing increasingly goes mobile, Microsoft appears destined to gradually lose that dominance, a shift that would affect its entire business.

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