mobile OSMobilitySmartphonesTablets

Tales In Tech History: Windows Mobile

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Before the Windows Phone and Nokia debacle, Microsoft struggled to gain critical mass with Windows Mobile

Microsoft has a curiously long history in the mobile space that began long before it acquired the mobile handset unit of Nokia (and then killed it).

Released in April 2000, Windows Mobile (or Pocket PC 2000 as it was called back then) was a family of mobile operating systems designed for pocket PCs and smartphones.

Windows Mobile

The OS itself was based on the Windows CE kernel from the 1990s, and was designed to mimic the appearance of Windows 98 on the desktop, but on a much smaller screens of course.

Microsoft released a new version of the mobile operating system almost on a yearly basis, and in 2003 changed the name from Pocket PC 2002 to Windows Mobile 2003. From then on the Windows Mobile name stuck.

HTC touch screen 2002There was a range of Windows Mobile devices over the years, and Microsoft shipped millions of PDAs loaded with the OS. Other firms such as Palm, LG, Samsung, and HTC also shipped their own Windows Mobile devices.

Early versions came with a stylus because they used resistive touchscreens, but later devices came with finger-friendly capacitive sensing touchscreens.

It is arguable that the height of Windows Mobile came about in 2004, when accounted for 23 percent of worldwide smartphone sales. Indeed, at one stage Windows Mobile was predicted to overtake Symbian to become the leading mobile OS by 2010.

Windows Mobile was pitched very much at the enterprise market, but it was competing against formidable opposition from the likes of Nokia and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, and it never really achieved critical mass, unlike its Windows desktop operating system which dominated the market.

By 2008 Windows Mobile was struggling to retain market share, and in a last ditch attempt Microsoft launched Windows Mobile 6.5 in October 2009 amid diminished expectations.

By then CEO Steve Ballmer had already confessed the company had “screwed up” its smartphone franchise, and to many industry observers Windows Mobile 6.5 was a sort of stopgap measure until Microsoft could launch a new and much improved smartphone operating system, which turned out to be Windows Phone 7 (released in October 2010).

Microsoft Missteps

Many observers felt that Microsoft had doomed Windows Mobile, which was regarded as a fairly decent mobile operating system, because of the uninspiring apps that was bundled with it. That set a low bar for developers building their own Windows Mobile apps.

Another problem came because developers had to build several versions of one app because of the variety of Windows Mobile devices from differing handset makers.

Compare that approach to Apple after it launched the iPhone in 2007. Apple developers only had to develop one version of their app for the iPhone.

In 2009 and 2010 handset makers such as Samsung, LG and Palm began deserting the Windows Mobile platform. Matters were not helped by the fact that Google was already giving away Android for free.

Microsoft consequently switched its mobile development efforts to Windows Phone 7, which delivered a different approach than Windows Mobile, thanks to its tiled “Metro” interface.

windows phoneThe Windows Phone operating system was officially adopted by the fading giant mobile giant Nokia in early 2011, and it seemed for a short time that Microsoft had finally got its mobile act together and stood a chance to make a dent in the consumer space.

But by 2010 the smartphone market had already become a two-horse race between Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Microsoft delivered a slow stream of improvements to the Windows Phone OS over the years, but its efforts proved fruitless and Microsoft has now retreated from the mobile space.

Microsoft officials still publicly stress they are committed to Windows 10 on mobile devices, and there are rumours of a Surface smartphone, but it seems unlikely that Microsoft will ever become a mobile player of note in the current market conditions.

So what went wrong with Windows Phone?

Well, Microsoft had huge resources, but it failed to compete in the mobile market because unlike Google and Apple, which were primarily focused on mobile, Microsoft had its fingers in too many pies as it had to split its development efforts on multiple projects and platforms, not just mobile.

Quiz: What do you know about Microsoft?