Windows Mobile healthier, more common than many think

Some see Windows Mobile as being on life support. I see 7 million users and a platform that Microsoft may be able to grow.

That Windows Mobile is "on life support" must come as news to the 7.23 million users of Microsoft's smartphone operating system. While the smartphone OS is in jeopardy, I don't see a situation nearly so dire.

The 7.23 million figure is how many users ComScore found in its October survey. It is an increase from 6.5 million users in July, making Windows Mobile the third most popular smartphone OS, after RIM and Apple.

My colleague, Tony Bradley, twists that number to say Windows Mobile is "on life support."

How does being the third most popular smartphone OS equate to being "on life support?" Yes, I know Microsoft's smartphone ambitions have always exceeded its grasp, but number three isn't such a bad position to be in.

Except in Tony's eyes, he says Apple's leap into the number two spot somehow makes Windows Mobile an endangered species.

That might true if Apple's customers were actually would-be Microsoft customers. Yet, in enterprises and businesses of any size, the iPhone is not a serious player. For business customers, the competition is between BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. That Apple now sits between them in total U.S. users doesn't mean terribly much.

I think a key difference, so far, between "enterprise" and "personal" handsets is the presence or absence of a "real" keyboard.

That is why, for example, the Palm Pixi is much more interesting as a business device than the Palm Pre, and also makes the Motorola Droid a potential competitor in the business space.

Tony cites his own decision to hold-off on purchasing a Windows Mobile handset as an example of how the delay until late next year for Windows Mobile 7 is killing the platform. He believes other customers will likewise delay purchases pending the next release.

I accept this premise for individual purchasers, but Windows Mobile, according to Microsoft, tends to be a fleet purchase. The boss gives everyone a handset and periodic replacements and upgrades are the norm.

These customers are more tied to a platform than a specific phone, as well as to the link between the handset and corporate assets, such as e-mail. Plus any custom or standardized business applications that are installed onto the handset.

This is why the BlackBerry — showing steady growth at 19.3 million users — so hard to displace. Windows Mobile usage is up now, was down previously, and appears to be holding steady. BlackBerry rolls like a locomotive.

Windows Mobile's stagnation supports Tony's "life support" argument. However, before looking at the recent ComScore numbers, I'd long ago given Windows Mobile up for dead.

I don't routinely follow handset market share so, for me, having more than 7 million Windows Mobile users seems like a great customer base to grow from.

There may be rough times before Windows Mobile 7 arrives, but the difference here is that Tony sees the glass as half-empty, where I see half-full.

However, I think we'd both agree that a late 2010 release date for Windows Mobile 7 is as late as can possibly be acceptable.

Having said that, business handsets don't need the frequent updates that consumer products demand. Windows Mobile is much like other Microsoft products in that it tends to be an IT purchase, and there are only so many changes IT can or will accept in a given period of time.

If Windows Mobile were a consumer product, I'd put it on the "guarded" list, but as a corporate purchase its condition — again in medical terminology — rises to "serious." And that is a quite a distance from life support. Lots of "serious" patients recover, as Windows Mobile may prosper in the future.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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