Why Microsoft Will Lose the Mobile OS Wars

Last Updated Oct 16, 2009 9:23 PM EDT

Microsoft is going to lose the battle to control mobile operating systems. It may even lose the chance to take any significant part. Such a statement isn't anti-MS dogma nor does it have to do with any technical esoteric. It comes down to arithmetic.

It doesn't matter whether you think that Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zetlin is right when he predicts that the open source OS will become ascendant. It doesn't matter whether you are a Google or Apple booster. It also doesn't matter whether you think, as my colleague Michael Hickins does, that browsers and HTML 5 will largely eliminate the importance of the OS. (By the way, I think his argument, though not an absolute lock on the future, is well considered.)

All that matters is a little counting. I've argued before that hardware wants to be free. A conversation with a colleague recently brought that home. He was considering a refurbished laptop for a few hundred dollars until he realized that he could get a well-enough-appointed major brand machine for the same or less money. That's for a full laptop, not a netbook. Prices are crashing. And when they do, vendors scramble for cover. Part of that reaction is to cut every blessed fraction of a penny they can from the cost of the equipment.

That puts Microsoft at an enormous disadvantage. Apple? Essentially a free OS for the iPhone or any other device because it develops it and doesn't have to pay a licensing fee. Linux? Free. Android? Again, free. Symbian? If you're a member of the Symbian Foundation, then no royalties. Not quite free, but pretty close. Microsoft? They want money.

The people in Redmond cannot compete because they can't afford to. If you're charging money when all around you don't, you'd better offer a significant value that will make more people want to do business with you. Some analysts are predicting that Nokia will drop the Microsoft platform in the near future. Gartner is predicting that Symbian and Android will lead the market in 2012. Even Steve Ballmer has admitted that Microsoft has blown it and has to do better with Windows Mobile 7. The problem is that they are too late. Companies are placing their bets and moving on, and even a vastly improved platform isn't going to remake the market at that point. Microsoft is a dinosaur that has just seen the comet hit the planet. Soon the clouds will swirl, close, and part, leaving nothing but a pile of whitening bones.

Image via stock.xchng use mmagallan, site standard license.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.