How Microsoft’s New Mobile Approach Stacks Up with Apple and Google

Pretty soon you might not be able to tell the difference between Microsoft and its most hated rivals. At least in the mobile sector. This would be good news for Microsoft.

That’s my take after thinking more about Microsoft’s announcement last week of its heir apparent to Windows Mobile—the Windows Phone 7 Series operating system. Today, more details have emerged on how Microsoft is planning to integrate digital music and multiplayer video games into its smartphones, via its Zune service and Xbox Live, respectively. Of course, it’s all still a ways away—the first phones with WP7 won’t arrive until the end of this year.

Microsoft’s mobile overhaul is hardly surprising, given how widely its efforts to make software for smartphones have been panned. And Windows Mobile executives have been talking about putting music, video, and games on phones for at least six years. But what’s interesting here is how Microsoft’s strategy lines up against some of its main competitors who have entered the mobile realm much more recently.

It looks like Microsoft’s WP7 will follow Apple’s proprietary development model more closely than Google’s open-source approach. Microsoft wants its mobile applications to be designed around a unified set of specifications for hardware and software. That means Microsoft mobile apps should run smoothly across different devices, as long as they support the WP7 operating system and user interface. Although some might criticize this as a “closed” approach—like the iPhone system and Windows PCs—it should avoid some of the problems of the open-source ecosystem, like forcing developers to tweak their code for each device’s interface. (As for Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry platform, and Nokia, which mainly uses the Symbian operating system, Microsoft might be thinking about acquiring one or both of them—not sure if that would make sense though.)

More broadly, the latest Microsoft push has renewed discussions about how the Redmond, WA, company stacks up against other tech giants across different businesses. At least one observer, Preston Gralla from Computerworld, thinks Apple is vulnerable because its success is tied too closely to CEO Steve Jobs; meanwhile, Google has a near monopoly on Web search and advertising, which bodes well as mobile handsets become more powerful and capable of running faster Web searches and applications. But others would say Apple has built a strong culture of product innovation that would survive a Jobs departure, while Google is a one-trick pony that is too dependent on ad revenues. In most of these arguments, Microsoft sits in the middle—with enough of an operating systems business to survive a long time while it moves more deeply into search, mobile, and entertainment. And that’s probably where it wants to be, for now.

Of course, I wonder what Seattle-based Amazon will have to say about all of this. That’s a question for another day.

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