Microsoft announced Tuesday that Windows Marketplace for Mobile, the software giant's last best hope to compete with Apple, RIM, Google and the other firms in the mobile space, will support Windows Mobile 6.0 and Windows Mobile 6.1 devices. The applications store will also have a dedicated Business section for enterprise customers.
It's a smart move for Microsoft. When the company first announced Windows Marketplace, it said that only support devices bundled with Windows Mobile 6.5 and above. That move left a large portion of Microsoft's customers out.
And it could have easily hurt the company's ability to compete as effectively as possible in the market. But with the addition of Windows Mobile 6.5 support, all that has changed. Now, Microsoft believes it has a better chance to compete.
"By the end of 2009, Windows Marketplace will also be available to Windows Mobile 6.0 and 6.1 devices," Todd Brix, Microsoft's senior director for mobile platform services management, said. "This means that developers will have an opportunity to reach more than 30 million Windows Mobile devices."
Although that figure is impressive, it needs to be met with a certain level of skepticism. Microsoft didn't say whether or not those 30 million devices were shipped or if they are in use. It makes a difference. Certainly 30 million devices is a hefty number that should entice most developers to consider creating applications for the platform. But if Microsoft has only sold 30 million units (my hunch) and a small percentage of those are still in use, that 30 million figure is inflated and thus, the platform isn't as attractive as Microsoft might have us believe.
Regardless of the actual number of devices in use, Microsoft faces major challenges if it wants to become a major player in the mobile app market. It's a crowded space with companies such as Apple, Google and RIM all offering competitive applications for mobile customers. Even Palm is trying to break into the business, but so far, its WebOS platform has yet to support more than 30 apps.
For its part, Microsoft said it plans to have 600 applications available in the Windows Marketplace when it launches this fall. While that easily bests Palm, it can't quite match the rest of the competition. Apple announced Tuesday that its store has more than 65,000 apps. Apple claims that so far, 1.5 billion apps have been downloaded. RIM's BlackBerry App World has more than 1,000 apps. Google's Android Market has more than 2,000 apps. So, it seems Microsoft won't be able to take the lead anytime soon.
Too little, too late
And isn't that the problem in the first place? Microsoft is late to the app game. The company has watched as Apple, Google, RIM, Palm and others have brought applications to mobile phones. All the while, it has stuck to its promise of delivering its own store. Finally, it will launch this fall. But since so much time has elapsed, it could be too little, too late.
Microsoft has been trying to catch up to the competition in the mobile space for years. Its software has tended to stick just a step or two behind the latest curve. Smartphones running on Windows Mobile aren't nearly as coveted as the competition's. And for the most part, it isn't providing an experience with its software that many want.
It looks like more of the same with the Windows Marketplace. Although the company has said that it will share 70 percent of revenue with developers-reportedly the same agreement Apple has with App Store developers-600 apps and more phone support just doesn't look like the key to success for the software giant. In fact, it looks more like a desperate move on its part to get something (anything) into the market so it can start competing.
But competing will be Microsoft's toughest challenge. What can it really bring to the market that will make consumers want to switch to a Windows Mobile device? An app store with fewer apps certainly won't do it. And neither will the host of Windows Mobile devices that smack of antiquity when they sit next to more "current" products from Palm, Google, RIM and Apple.
It's doubtful that Microsoft can keep up. The company might have the cash to invest in practically anything, but it doesn't have the technology to make its platform work. It's competing in an environment where its competitors are far more agile. Worst of all, they're far more advanced.
So, as Microsoft tries to work its way into the mobile app market, it's trying desperately to look relevant. Although the company needed to release an app store, it's debatable whether or not it has the ability to make it work. While more supported devices will certainly help, it might be the company's tardiness that could hold its store back.