17 February 2020
Microsoft made a blunder in failing to jump in on the mobile opportunity, allowing Google’s Android to grab the non-Apple mobile operating system market. Photo: Bloomberg
Microsoft made a blunder in failing to jump in on the mobile opportunity, allowing Google’s Android to grab the non-Apple mobile operating system market. Photo: Bloomberg

Can Microsoft build a new mobile OS in 5G era?

Apple and Google have been dominating the mobile communications sector over the past decade, with their operating systems — iOS and Android — playing a key role in driving the sector growth. As the two firms lorded over the market, it was a story of missed opportunity for another big tech firm: Microsoft.

The Redmond-based software giant failed to extend its advantage in desktop computing into mobile platform a decade ago, a misstep that has left the firm virtually out of the game in a key arena.

The company’s Windows Mobile and Windows Phone efforts proved damp squibs in the marketplace, prompting the management to pull the plug on those initiatives.

Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates admitted last week that the firm didn’t do enough to seize the mobile operating system (OS) market despite having had a head-start, which led to Android capturing the non-Apple OS space, a market that is estimated to be worth about US$400 billion. 

During an interview at an event organized by venture capital firm Village Global, Gates said his “greatest mistake ever” was allowing Google to develop Android and grab the non-Apple OS market. 

“That was a natural thing for Microsoft to win,” he said, referring to Microsoft’s early Windows Mobile efforts that came years before took up the Android task. 

Lack of enough focus, as well as worries about potential anti-trust issues, derailed Microsoft, enabling Google to seize the market with its Android system, Gates said, reflecting on what is perhaps his firm’s biggest blunder. 

Top Microsoft executives surely have much to think about and ponder how they went wrong. That said, it might be premature for us to conclude that it’s all game over now for the firm.

Given its size and resources — Microsoft is currently the most valuable listed entity, having beaten back Apple, Amazon and Google after steady gains in share price — the company is well placed to make another go at the mobile market as the world ushers in the 5G era.   

The challenge will be huge, yet the firm should be able to bear the risk and revisit the market with its unique corporate-focused, cloud-based solutions as 5G promises to transform the way of doing business.

There have been rumors that Microsoft is creating a Linux-based mobile OS, trying its hand again in the huge market with an open-source system.

Industry watchers, meanwhile, have said that Microsoft is planning to launch a new foldable device running on both Android and Windows operating system.

Microsoft is working on a foldable device of its own, a pocketable Surface Phone-like gadget that would run a special version of Windows 10, tech news website BGR reported this week. The firm is said to have shown off a dual-screen Surface device during a closed door event, suggesting that it going forward with the project.

There is speculation that Microsoft plans to have Android apps run natively on the new Windows machine. If that is true, it would suggest Microsoft is looking to embrace to Android to reach a bigger user base to boost its hardware business, and not just rely on its own effort.

Microsoft, under its current leadership of Satya Nadella, has been seeking to shift its focus from selling copies of software bundled with computers to selling software subscription services.

While many desktop and laptop computers are still bundled with Windows operating system, it isn’t Microsoft’s core business focus now. Rather, it is initiatives such as selling Microsoft Office subscriptions to enable users to access the software on different devices with a single account on the cloud.

A subscription based model can help Microsoft build long-term sustainable revenue stream, rather than the case with one-off transactions.

But given the fact the mobile market is now dominated by Apple and Google in terms of software, it could be a tough task for Microsoft to directly challenge the duo without any killer applications.

For Microsoft, it may not be a smart move to develop a whole new operating system for just a single series of device like the Surface. That could limit its user base and potential for future growth. Still, the company could consider extending its cloud-based service, from applications to operating system.

Users of connected devices could gain access Microsoft Windows operating system through cloud. They can log in to their desktop and enjoy a similar Windows environment on the browser.

Such an arrangement could be a possible solution for Microsoft to win some share in the mobile market without investing in hardware business.

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EJ Insight writer