Perspective: The App-Phone Revolution Is Well Underway. So Where's Microsoft?

Last Updated Dec 8, 2009 7:50 PM EST

Don't mistake a clear view for a short distance.
Futurist Paul Saffo.

For a long time, Paul Saffo's cautionary aphorism was
the touchstone for high-tech. Any company that created a technology or product
that transformed the marketplace can testify to its truth. So, too, can the
legions of entrepreneurs who set out to invent what to them was a clear game
changer, yet never managed to see their ideas through. Hence that other
high-tech adage: You can always tell who the pioneers are because they have
arrows in their backs and are lying face down in
the dirt.

This, at least, is the way it used to be. The most
successful companies often let others pave the way before they came in and
methodically conquered the market. Just look at the PC. Though it seems as if “Wintel”
PCs have been around forever, Microsoft spent decades fulfilling Bill Gates’
dream of putting a computer on every desk and in every home. And it didn’t
really happen until Microsoft’s third
stab at Windows, the graphical interface similar to what had been developed at
Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the mid-1970s and then made
useful by the Apple Macintosh.

Even Apple has taken the let-others-try-this-first-approach:
Plenty of MP3 players were on the market before it launched the iPod, for

Nowadays, however, Saffo’s wisdom doesn’t
always seem to apply. The metabolism of digital technology has just become too
fast, and transformative innovations aren’t taking nearly as long to
play out. Consequently, we’re beginning to see examples of how it can
backfire on companies when they behave as though
they have plenty of time to jump on a new opportunity. Microsoft, again, is a
case in point.

We are now witnessing the fastest evolution of a mass technology
to date in what’s also unmistakably the emergence of the next big
genre of computing: the multipurpose, endlessly modifiable “app
phone.” (We can thank the readers of href="">New
York Times
gadget reviewer David Pogue for suggesting that apt nickname).
Apple’s iPhone and the up-and-coming devices from Motorola, HTC, and
others built upon Google’s Android software, not to mention Palm’s
Pre, and the ever-evolving Blackberry, have transformed the very character of
the mobile phone business in only a couple of years. And they are beginning to
encroach on the turf of laptops as well.

Moreover, consider how quickly we got to this point. It was less
than eight years ago that Research
In Motion established the smart phone category
in the United States with
the Blackberry, followed shortly after by Palm’s Treo, and Microsoft’s
Windows Mobile smart phone architecture that was licensed to Motorola and
others. The main selling point of those first smart phones was that they put an
e-mail device in your pocket. Nifty devices, for sure, but hardly app phones.

The clear view of your future with a full-blown computer in
your pocket — a new socio-technological zeitgeist first demonstrated
when Steve Jobs previewed the iPhone in January of 2007 — has become a
ubiquitous reality so fast that it almost induces whiplash. In tandem, a
brand-new consumer software business has emerged that has developed well more
than 100,000 ways to add capabilities to the various app-phones, spurring its own href="">growing
economy. Plenty of people saw this approaching, but hardly anyone suspected
it would arrive this quickly.

Which is why it’s so mind-boggling that Microsoft’s
has been so silent during it all. What gives?

Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 6 software is still the
world’s No. 2 underlying system for previous generation smart phones,
behind Nokia’s href="">Symbian software
platform, which is dominant in Europe. But that’s not the app-phone
market. What’s striking is that Microsoft hasn’t fully
freshened Windows Mobile in three years, and doesn’t expect to
complete a new revision until next fall. That’s a long way off given
how fast this market is evolving. (The company in September rushed out a
pseudo-update, called
version 6.5
, that tacked on iPhone-like touch interface features. But with
just a few hundred basic programs available for download, it still doesn’t
really qualify as an app-phone platform.)

Was Microsoft caught flat-footed? Hardly. Apple had telegraphed
its mobile phone intentions for a couple of years before going public. And after
Jobs finally showed off the first iPhone six months before launch, Apple quickly
made more changes and upgrades, even re-jiggering the body of the first phone
just before it hit the stores. It has since redesigned the iPhone twice, and has
released two feature-laden, major updates of its operating system. Research In
Motion also has wasted little time making its utilitarian Blackberry more media-
and app-friendly.

There are no simple answers to any question about a
leviathan like Microsoft, of course. The company struggles with bureaucratic
issues from having so many plates spinning. And, successful as it is, Microsoft
also seems to have a tin ear when it comes to bringing its technology to pure
consumer markets. This is the company that tried to give us software called
Bob, after all, and whose cumbersome first mobile software platform, Windows CE,
was commonly referred to as “WinCE.”

Perhaps most significantly, founder Bill Gates is a bona fide
“product guy” — a characterization for which I
expect to take some heat — and he happened to choose to ease out of
the top management loop to focus on philanthropy during this time. CEO Steve
Ballmer, by contrast, is a high-IQ management wonk more comfortable with
organization charts and spreadsheets than with schematics and spec lists. He is
anything but a product guy.

When a high-tech marketplace is morphing quickly, as the
app-phone market is, having a CEO who is a “product guy” is
a tremendous asset. Apple’s Jobs, who always seeks to create gadgets
he’d want to use, has shown the value of that. Having a product lover
in charge helps a company discern when that clear view actually means you are
looking at an opportunity that will also be obvious to your competitors. In
that kind of situation — such as the current app-phone scramble —
you can’t sit back and wait for a first-mover to take all the arrows
so you can swoop in and clean up the remains. It’s a land rush —
and that demands speed.

To be fair, it’s too soon to write Microsoft off
in the app-phone sweepstakes. “WinMob” 7, href="">although already
beset by delays, is scheduled to come out next year. IT departments that
issue and maintain gear for employees are Microsoft’s natural allies.
And Microsoft knows better than anyone how to develop and support an ecosystem
of software developers to build apps. Windows-based PCs still dominate the
market, after all.

On the other hand, Microsoft might not even make it to the
big showdown for consumer app-phones. The market is moving that fast. Rather
than déjà vu all over again, with Microsoft vs. Apple in a grudge match that
revisits their earlier battle to define personal computing, it’s
looking more likely that we’ll see Apple vs. Google, fighting it out
for app-phone bragging rights.

And don’t be surprised if it goes 15 rounds.

Perspective aims to take a long-term view of the
technology business, analyzing where it has been and where it’s going.
Brent Schlender has covered the industry for 30 years at the Wall Street
Journal and Fortune magazine.

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    Paul Sloan has been a San Francisco-based correspondent for Fortune magazine, an editor-at-large for Business 2.0 magazine, and a senior producer for CNN. He's now an executive editor at CNET News. When his fingers aren't on a keyboard, they're usually on a guitar. Email him here.