It’s the most hotly disputed topic in IT circles: which companies are going to become the smartphone superpowers?
Today, with Blackberry down for the count, Apple and Samsung reign supreme. But Microsoft is making a big—some would say risky—play to muscle its way into one of the top spots by buying Nokia for more than $7 billion.
If you’re a developer, this must look a lot like a horse race. Do you place your bets on a mobile OS that’s still getting its footing and learn to develop for Windows Phone? By most accounts, Microsoft’s foray into the mobile world hasn’t been such a smashing success so far.
Buying Nokia outright could change that. But one thing is for sure: Microsoft needs to get its act together on a coherent mobile strategy before consumer, business, and of course, developer trust is restored.
There are many different scenarios that could see Microsoft’s mobile strategy become either a success or a flop, or something in between. I don’t say disaster here because unlike our very own Blackberry, Microsoft can afford to make mistakes—even really big mistakes.
Here are a couple pros and cons of throwing your lot in with Microsoft.
Pro: Microsoft is big enough to bounce back—and Nokia was a good buy
Consumers and businesses have had plenty of ups and downs in their relationship with Microsoft. Looking back at desktop operating systems, Windows ME was almost universally disliked, while the Windows NT family seemed to hit the right spots. Fast forward to today, and the jury is still out on Windows 8 as a desktop operating system. But on the other hand, people running its mobile twin on Nokia phones are generally a happy bunch.
Just pick up a Nokia Lumia phone, and you’ll feel quality in your hand. As a phone manufacturer, Nokia was considered top in its class for many years, and the build quality of their devices remains excellent. You can hammer nails with a Lumia phone, but it’s Microsoft’s OS that could break them.
And when it comes to tablets and convertible laptops, Microsoft has gotten mixed reviews, but nobody is smashing their products in frustration. They may not be able to compete in the same league as Apple or Samsung yet, but Microsoft’s products are selling fairly well. In short, Microsoft is able to put out even mediocre products on the market, cut their losses if they aren’t well received, and then try something else.
Again, it seems almost unfair to Blackberry. A much smaller company puts out a phone packed full of innovative new features (BB10) and one of the most secure mobile device management systems on earth, but remains in dire straits. Meanwhile, Microsoft can alienate a sizable portion of their user base for a while, then win them back in due time.
The bottom line is that Windows has years to figure out how to do mobile phones right, and they do tend to get things right even after a few false starts.
Con: Microsoft keeps the mobile, ditches Windows Phone
In another sense, the sheer size of the company could work against it. At different times, Apple and Blackberry were seen as minor players in the tech landscape. But they both kept their focus on making a few key products work very well. In RIM’s heyday, before the word “smartphone” entered our lexicon, Blackberry was by far the most popular device for secure mobile email and messaging. It was practically a status symbol to own one. And starting with the iPod, every new Apple product was close to a slam dunk.
Microsoft isn’t too big to innovate, but they are at a disadvantage, ironically, because they have the money to put many prototypes (some better than others) on the drawing board and simply see what works. They know they need a mobile strategy, but they don’t have the same sort of innovate-or-fail culture of smaller mobile-only companies.
If their foray into the smartphone market really isn’t working out, they might scrap it entirely and stick to the software side of things. Let’s assume for a moment that the next incarnation of Windows OS brings a better user experience across tablets, desktops and convertible laptops. That in itself would be a big boost to their core business.
Mobile developers: stay informed, and proceed with caution
Windows Phone developers are in a tricky situation right now because unlike consumers, and to some degree, businesses, they’re taking a bit of a risk by simply waiting to see if Microsoft’s latest buy is going to make their smartphone business take off. There could be plenty of jobs for developers, and getting in early has its advantages. And to look at it another way, even if Windows Phone fades into oblivion, a lucrative niche market for the minority of developers with the right skills could emerge.
That said, given the pattern we’ve seen with Microsoft, a wait-and-see approach is probably the smarter move. The best strategy may be to watch Microsoft very carefully for the next few months. News and stock tickers can only tell you so much, but you can dig deeper by staying in contact with current or former Windows Phone developers in forums and LinkedIn groups. Then, decide for yourself if and when the the moment to strike has come.