On Feb 29th, 2012, Microsoft officially unveiled its new operating system, Windows 8 at the World Mobile Congress in Spain (the Beta version is now available for download by end users). We feel that Windows 8 will lay the foundation for not just Microsoft’s survival in the mobile devices space but also help it grow in the face of intensifying competition from other operating systems (e.g. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android).
The first thing to remember is that Windows 8 is not just a desktop or a notebook operating system and, given Microsoft’s dominance in the PC operating systems, the primary objective of Windows 8 would not be to defend its share on the PC market but rather to extend its reach to the ARM chips and various mobile devices.
The immediate demand for Windows 8 will come from the large proportion of Windows XP users who were so satisfied with that older OS that they never even bothered to upgrade their PCs to Windows 7, in spite of its substantial enhancements over Windows XP and Vista. Windows 8 further enhances the capabilities of previous versions of Windows, making it an attractive upgrade for PCs.
However, Microsoft is intensely focused on the mobile market and has designed Windows 8 to work with both x86 and ARM processors and has also designed it to work with a multitude of mobile devices, (e.g. notebooks, tablets, etc.), making it highly attractive to business users as well as consumers who want to access not just the Internet and various mobile apps available for Apple and Android but also their traditional PC-based apps
including, and especially productivity applications like Microsoft Office.
In the last few years, we have seen exponential growth in mobile devices (e.g. smartphones and tablets) based on Apple and Android.
- While iOS has primarily been seen as a premium brand targeted at early SMB adopters, it is now expanding its base to price-conscious SMB users by offering its older versions at lower prices.
- Android-based devices come at a multitude of price points from various vendors. This is especially important among SMBs in price-conscious emerging markets.
- Given the rapidly evolving market conditions, Windows 8 should ideally start at the low-to-medium end of the SMB price segment to prevent further expansion by Apple’s iOS and Android and then steadily move up the value chain by offering products with more features/ functionalities at comparatively higher price points to intensify competition against iOS and Android.
There are essentially four key areas that will be critical for Microsoft’s success in mobile market: operating system, mobile devices, applications and service providers (carriers).
Mobile Operating System
After several years of lagging significantly behind other vendors, Microsoft’s Windows 8 is a significant improvement over its predecessor mobile operating systems. The current version will not give it the kind of dominance it has in the PC market. However, if it halts, or slows the rapid growth of Apple and Android devices, it would be a major success. Even as it releases the current version, we can be sure that the company is already planning new future versions with significant improvements that would help it grow its share vis-a-vis Apple and Android.
It is important to highlight a couple of differences between Microsoft Mobile and its key competitors. While Apple’s iOS is available only on Apple’s devices, Google goes to the opposite extreme and allows limited OS customization to device vendors to help them differentiate their products. While the device manufacturers may like this idea initially, this is likely to create tremendous variety in the market, causing much confusion for the app developers as well as customers. Microsoft, on the other hand, specifies the hardware requirements for its operating system and app developers and customers will know exactly what they get when they buy a Microsoft-based device.
One of the greatest requirements for success in the mobile space, and where Microsoft has an advantage is the ecosystem of OEMs, ISVs and other channel partners.
- Microsoft has the largest number of OEM partners for PCs (e.g. HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, LG, etc.), who will be very quick to offer mobile devices based on Microsoft’s new operating system. In addition, many of the OEMs who currently offer Android-based devices will hedge their bets by offering Microsoft-based mobile devices also (rather than focus on just one OS like Android).
- Nokia (Microsoft’s strategic partner) has the largest subscriber base of mobile phones, especially outside the US. In addition, other phone vendors like Samsung and LG also have significant subscriber bases and are well-regarded in select markets. They will also be quick to offer Windows-based devices, enlarging the potential base of Windows Pone users.
- User-friendliness of hardware devices will also be critical to Microsoft’s success in the mobile space. OEMs like Nokia and Samsung have shown significant potential for innovation in design and incorporating user-friendliness in their devices that we feel quite optimistic about their ability to accelerate acceptance of Microsoft as a mobile operating system. Collectively, these OEMs (in Microsoft’s ecosystem) account for bulk of the market and they will undoubtedly find it easier to sell Windows Phones to their existing customers instead of phones based on alternative operating systems.
Apple and Android have had a head start in getting apps for their devices due to their early expansion. Their relative advantage in applications will diminish in the next 2-3 years very significantly.
- Most ISVs who currently develop Windows-based applications will be quick to port their apps to Windows–based mobile devices also.
- Similarly, developers who have already invested significant amounts in developing new apps for Apple and Android will be unable to resist the urge to supplement their revenues by adapting their apps for Windows Phones with minimal incremental investments and tapping into the expanding base of Windows users.
- Already, many applications are available for use on Windows phones from the Windows Phone applications store and the number of these applications will increase significantly in the future.
- These developments will be possible if and only if Microsoft encourages and provides incentives for its own ISVs as well as ISVs of Apple and Android-based apps to migrate to Windows 8. Given that this may be the last major window (pun unintended) of opportunity for Microsoft to gain market share in the mobile space, it is reasonable to assume that it will allocate adequate resources for this (it has already made senior-level leadership changes in this regard.)
- All these developments, which might take a few years to implement, will result in a very large number of mobile apps for Window 8-based mobile devices, reducing the app gap with Apple and Android and vastly reducing the ISVs developing apps for WebOS and RIM’s Blackberry.
The final key element that will determine Microsoft’s success are the service providers (or the wireless carriers). Many of the OEM vendors like Samsung and LG, who are likely to develop Microsoft-based mobile devices already have long-established relationships with carriers in local markets, making it easier for them to sell Windows-based devices to or through them. In addition, if the carriers see significant adoption among the end customers, they may not need much convincing at all.
- Considering that SMBs use different devices to access same apps and data, the display should adapt to the device being used automatically. VDI vendors are already offering such capabilities and Windows 8 should not be left behind in this race. Microsoft could even consider buying Citrix for this (and selling off its online division, with which Microsoft has significant overlaps).
- Automatic synching of apps and data on various data used on various devices. Microsoft already has the SkyDrive to help in synching up the data. VDI would help its users synch their apps also and reduce the maintenance and support costs for businesses and hosting companies
- Small Business users and consumers are somewhat similar in terms of their needs, motivations and budgets. Since Windows 8 is in the best position to bridge the gap between notebooks/ desktops and tablets by offering its range of business applications, it should go all the way and also offer consumer apps that Small Business users might want on their mobile devices, including integration with social media.
- SMB Users carry their mobile devices wherever they go and, if the experience of cell phones is any guide, they will lose these mobile devices. Microsoft, along with its service providers should provide remote locations/lockout/wipe-out capabilities as a standard feature. This will be especially important for security conscious users.
- Microsoft Office should be available on all versions including mobile devices.
- Battery life will be an important consideration for SMBs.
Many customers have been waiting eagerly for the launch of Windows 8. Techaisle’s latest Ultrabook study (completed in January 2012), SMBs cite the availability of Windows 8 as the 2nd most desired feature which will spur the demand for new client devices.
Microsoft and Nokia were among the first ones to identify the mobile device market and Microsoft launched its first tablets nearly a decade back while Nokia launched its Communicator even earlier than that. While their vision was ahead of the market practicalities, they lost their focus when the requisite technologies and customer work styles did ripen up, allowing first Apple and then Android devices to grow rapidly. But given Microsoft’s vast and resourceful ecosystem, a few years from now, all past rumors of its death in the mobile space might seem premature. With the launch of Microsoft 8 and its strategic partnership with Nokia, it has taken first concrete steps to gain its rightful place in the mobile market.