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MS smartphones: Pope Juha marshalls his divisions

Who may have their own plans about which way to face...

Microsoft Mobile Devices Division VP Juha Christensen, it has to be said, currently has a similar number of divisions to the Pope; so deploying them this week at the Microsoft Mobility Developer Conference in Paris* was something of a challenge. Although there are now several operators in the MS smartphone camp, the only one that's been running with the platform long to enough to have what you'd call realistic shipping figures is Orange. AT&T and T-Mobile will join in during the summer, and may even sell in sufficient volume to give poor Juha a market share that can be measured in whole numbers - but that is not now, not this week in Paris, where Orange was the only game in town.

So Juha deployed his divisions with the aid of smoke, mirrors and diversionary activities. The statistical factoids and Chinese Whispers will have had some resonance to those who remember the long years during which NT was 'powering into' the server market while market share barely trembled. Juha (curiously described in his intro as "co-founder" of Symbian), lobs in CE/PocketPC units, developers and software, i.e. we're talking about the whole Microsoft mobile platform pile here, then deftly switches to "about 55 per cent of the wireless device market is ours." Which, if we're talking about wireless devices which are not mobile phones but pocket devices, and which have wireless built in, may well be the case. Juha points out here that PocketPC is leading PalmOS and Symbian, and perhaps it would be a kindness to leave the lad with one area he can lead in, without reminding him that Symbian (didn't he used to work there?) devices do seem to connect, even with the wrong kind of wireless. And indeed that Psion (didn't he used to work there as well?) devices were connecting via mobile phones before Symbian even existed.

Juha's prize Chinese whisper, however, was applied to the prize exhibit: Orange expects to sell one million SPV type phones this calendar year, and Orange said so at GSM World Congress. Oh, really? we thought. And by happy coincidence, we were able to nail the origins of this wildy ambitious (and most likely impossible) commitment with Orange VP Nick Balderson a couple of hours later. The truth is interesting of itself, and should be even more interesting from Juha's point of vew, because it does not seem to us to augur well for Microsoft's position in the smartphone market.

First, the year - it is the Orange financial year, March 31st to March 31st, so we've just kicked off. Next, Orange means "SPV-style devices," and if you think aha, that means the total number of SPV variants, so that's how Juha gets to be a millionaire, you'd be wrong - because that's not what Orange means by "SPV-style."

Orange is a network, not a handset manufacturer, but the SPV is an Orange-branded phone, and that is what it means by SPV-style. "Orange-owned devices." Juha's first million could therefore, conceivably, include numbers of shipments of Orange-badged Symbian, or Series 60, or PalmOS devices, or even the one that Orange is currently considering that is "not even a smartphone, but uses a proprietary OS." Shhhhhshh.... as they say.

So Orange and Juha are actually talking about two different things. Why they are doing so is also important. Microsoft obviously needs prize partners who're enthusiastic about Windows smartphones and who can be used to encourage more outfits to adopt the platform. So at the moment Orange is Microsoft's special friend; but although Orange must surely enjoy the attention, perhaps Microsoft is not quite so much Orange's special friend.

Orange's motivation is accounted for more by the need for control, or at least to avoiding being controlled by the hardware manufacturers. Microsoft's smartphone stall, which combines circumvention of the 'name' manufacturers with network branding, is therefore currently a useful road for Orange to follow, but this should not be confused with an objective, and the numbers sold so far aren't anything like enough to worry Nokia into conceding on branding and platform ownership.

Balderson however feels something else has had a recent impact on the hardware companies' thinking; Vodafone Live. Vodafone Live is a heavily-branded and marketed exercise in multimedia services to mobile phones, and although the service is offered on brand-name handsets, it is the Vodafone brand that is to the fore. Hence the odd sight of an Orange VP declaring that a rival network's marketing programme has been a helpful initiative.

The networks compete with one another, but when it comes to countering the overweening pride of the hardware manufacturers (one in particular), they're in the same trenches. "Prior to Vodafone Live, there wasn't a lot of receptiveness to customisation," says Balderson. "But they're more receptive now."

Essentially, if the networks can demonstrate success to the phone manufacturers, they can force at least some of them to back off from at least some of their own 'own the platform' plans. And the Orange Developer Network, launched just a few days ago, is relevant here.

Being able to control more of the branding, UI and services offered is part of the picture, while having influence in the development process is clearly closely-related to this. Currently the embryonic network only caters for the SPV, but to the logical question Balderson responds that yes, Orange does intend it to be broader, and is indeed in talks with Symbian and Handspring, among others, with a view to broadening it. Ask yourself why talks might be necessary, considering these parties would surely say yes immediately to anything that produced more developers, and you come to the conclusion that Orange must be proposing a developer network with Orange characteristics. In the same way, the current SPV network could be seen as a Microsoft developer network with Orange characteristics.

So although Orange is currently the prize, sole exhibit, there will clearly be tensions between the partners and divergences in terms of interests, objectives and ownership. Microsoft wants to promote its smartphones via numerous suppliers, Orange wants to build and promote software for smartphones that makes the Orange offering distinct, unique, compelling, and it is not in Orange's interest to be typecast as Microsoft's sonofabitch.

We should maybe therefore stop thinking of the Orange SPV as a possibly misguided product that shipped to early and didn't sell many units. What if, instead, it was seen as a valuable first step for Orange in smartphone software development and developer support? And what if adopters of Microsoft smartphones see them not as an exercise in PC-style commoditisation (as they're characterised by the rival camp), but as a useful disruptive force to be used to break down power blocs (as they're actually presented by Microsoft)? ®

* Reputable as always, The Register disdains cheap gags about Mickey Mouse networks, even if the event was held at Eurodisney, and even if Microsoft did bring the subject up itself before Juha's keynote. But honestly, the first 200 developers to sign up will get free Mickey Mouse ears with their kits? This is taking self-deprecation several steps too far. Juha's claimed total number of developers, incidentally, is substantially larger than the number of SPVs sold. So if all of these really were developing for the SPV, purchasers of the handset could potentially be delivered the ultimate in software support. Buy an SPV, get five developers moving into your spare room? Quite a package.

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