Hey Microsoft, forget MIX, focus on Mobiles

It is hardly a surprise that the more en vogue and exotic MIX ’07 is overshadowing a strategically more important event hosted by Microsoft – the 2007 Mobile and Embedded Devices Conference also being held in Las Vegas.

Given that mobiles are supposedly the platform for the next billion – aka a market Microsoft has to play in – it is a surprise that Microsoft and its vast press corps failed to send us a single alert about this conference, and instead chose to spend all their attention (and some serious dollars) on MIX 07. Such apathy is contrary to the progress Microsoft has made with Windows Mobile, which is one of the two future platforms of growth for the company. (Xbox is the other.)

05-01bach_msft001_sm.jpg“Today we already outsell RIM Blackberry in the marketplace, something most people don’t know,” said Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division in his keynote, promising that Microsoft will sell 20 million Windows Mobile 6 units in 2008.

(Good luck, but the competition is going to be fierce, especially from some flavor of mobile Linux, Symbian and just maybe from iPhone.)

That’s not a lot. Every year, roughly a billion mobiles are sold. Twenty million also doesn’t compare favorably to Nokia’s 2006 smart phone shipments of around 38 million. But to put it in proper context, five years ago, Microsoft had one device, one operator and a UI that behaved like the dwarf-cousin of the real thing, aka Windows.

Today Microsoft can at least boast that there are almost 150 devices that run Windows Mobile for mobile phones, 125 operators that sell those devices made by about 50-odd handset manufacturers. The user interface has improved, but it is still a work in progress.

While it is unlikely that I would switch to Windows Mobile anytime soon, I have seen how some friends of mine like the platform. In fast growing mobile societies like India and China, Windows Mobile devices are popular despite their high price tag. Many use Windows Mobile (and other phones) for what we view as computing tasks in the US. It is their computer.

Microsoft has to work hard with device makers to bring the prices down to $100-a-pop range, and see its market share zoom. Microsoft’s relevance (and more importantly future profits) in these new mobile societies are going to come from mobiles, not PCs.