So; was this year's Mobility Developer Conf a flop? Or has Microsoft got an ace up its sleeve?

by Guy Kewney | posted on 02 April 2003

On the face of it, if you compare Microsoft's mobility thrash in Disneyland with last year's pioneering event in London, the excitement was all last year. But it would be a big mistake to take this as any indication that some of the steam has gone out of the mobile effort. Under the apparently tranquil surface, the developers are growing in number ...

Guy Kewney

Even Robbie Ray Wright, director of Microsoft EMEA's mobile devices group, has to admit that the headlines from this year's developer conference won't match last year's. Last year was a shock; Microsoft is building phones? A thousand delegates come to the conference? The launch of the Compact Framework of .Net for mobile builders? The excitement was palpable; it even overshadowed the vastly bigger Symbian developer congress two weeks later.

This year, the big news is much lower key. Total numbers here in Disneyland are slightly down; but what matters is who came.

<1/> Wright

"Last year, we had 450 software developers in London. This year, we have 650, on first count; fully paid-for delegates, not just partner companies and Microsoft staff and so on," said Wright, summarising his impressions of the show for NewsWireless.Net this evening.

Not everybody is going to see this as the triumph it is. There have been some definite opportunities for rivals to laugh at Microsoft's expense.

1) Star of this show is Orange, the carrier which stuck its neck out and took the SPV on. Orange has announced its developer site - but has made it clear that this is very far from a Microsoft-oriented effort. It will support any smartphone developer community.

2) In two weeks, Orange will reveal that it is the prime sponsor of the big Symbian developer conference in London.

3) The SPV was an exciting headline a year ago; but this year, instead of the promised four models, the Sendo Z100 has vanished under the cloud of a really damaging lawsuit, the Samsung has been shown but isn't shipping, the Mitac and the others promised haven't even been shown, except in mockup.

4) The Symbian based P800 from Sony Ericsson is getting a huge amount of attention from corporate users - not from corporate buyers, not yet, but from top executive types, especially in Europe.

5) The new Smartphone 2003 platform has been pre-announced, and immediately extinguished, with the discovery that the Pocket PC 2003 Phone edition will ship months before - maybe even a year before. Microsoft has had to ask its partners if they mind the device being renamed as Smartphone 2004, to reflect its more probably shipment date.

6) Sales of SPV phones have been encouraging; but there is more production than pull through the channel, and Orange has had to postpone its launch of the SPV E100 upgrade - except for in Scandinavia. It may actually not be able to sell this model in the UK or France before the 2004 model is launched, especially if sales slow in expectation of the new hardware.

Anybody who remembers the old days of the launch of Windows, will probably be able to see underneath this, and realise that it is never safe to laugh at Microsoft, especially when it's floundering.

I was once a giggling participant at a "Microsoft Roast" at Comdex, in Las Vegas. It was organised by my old colleague John Dvorak and its purpose was to make Bill Gates stand up in public and concede that he'd made a series of over-optimistic forecasts about the launch of Windows. How we all laughed! - and rightly, given the years that had gone by since the first announcement. And before Windows 3.1 arrived, even more years had to go by, affording genuine amusement to all.

And how Microsoft is laughing now. It had an ace up its sleeve - a recognition of the potential of the 32-bit desktop platform, which nobody else perceived.

What actually happened, at this year's Disneyland show, was that Microsoft revealed the ace up its sleeve. That ace is the developer community.

Microsoft's Windows developers are a bit like spam. The percentage of people who have Visual Studio, and who are also interested in mobile applications - today - is probably close to the percentage of spam recipients who really want a new mortgage or a bigger membership or a friend in Nigeria. But that percentage is such a large number!

So for me, the big news here in France is that the Compact Framework is now going to be included with every copy of Visual Studio. Anybody who has a Windows PC and uses Microsoft development tools, can - at a click of the mouse - shift their code onto the emulator PocketPC or SmartPhone, which comes free with the suite.

At last year's Barcelona Tech Ed conference, there was a full "mobile stream" for developers. In every mobile session I attended, presenters attempted to persuade the programmers that they should use the Compact Framework of .Net - and inevitably, they would ask how many people were thinking of doing this.

The shocking truth is that fully 30% of every audience was already working with the CF. Not "investigating" or "doing freasibility studies" or "experimenting" but "working on a commercial project. And that was when the CF was only in beta - it only reached shipment this March, and that was announced at CeBIT.

If you like irony, it is this: that when people said they were using the beta version, it was a surprise even to Microsoft. This year, the fact that all those people are still using it, now that it is in final shipping version, is obviously, no surprise at all. But don't mistake "no surprise" for "nothing important happening."

The Orange developer site may be multiplatform very soon; and the number of Symbian phones and smartphones is already huge - but the fact that Orange is hosting its own developer community and started off with Windows Powered devices should not be underestimated in importance. It is very important.

Over the next months, we will hear the developer community complaining about .Net Compact Framework. They will explode with indignation when they find that RAS has been replaced by Connection Manager - and that CM will actually disable any RAS connections it ever finds. They will expostulate about this function call and that method, and it will look as if Microsoft is taking a pounding.

When you read those announcements, remember this; that if they weren't actually trying to use the development environment, nobody would hear about this.

"The developer community is the important thing about Microsoft's bid for the corporate mobile market," said Ovum senior analyst Bola Rotibi here at the conference. "The device side is interesting, and Microsoft has lots of issues to address there - but nobody else has this huge Windows developer community. If you look at Java, there are more people, but nobody owns it. Symbian just doesn't have the same number of people. Palm doesn't have the tools to move outside the mobile device."

The devices, indeed, have issues. There's no doubt at all that Palm can make a handheld device for half the cost of a Microsoft Windows Powered device, and even then, make three times the profit margin - the software footprint of Windows is just too big. And the reliability is another issue, which Windows has to address on more devices than just the hand-held.

"But what we're doing, is showing that software is important," said Wright. "When we announced the SmartPhone, people said 'what, are you mad? who is going to load applications onto their phones?' - but now, we're starting to see the results."

Last year, said Wright, the "mobile-to-market" project was just announced with Orange. Nobody thought it was feasible. This year, 650 developers paid to come and learn how to achieve the target of having hundreds, then thousands, of downloadable applications.

Applications like Streetmap.com will launch in two weeks, enabling any SmartPhone or Pocket PC user to download a map of any part of Western Europe over the air. There are voice-driven applications, there are Microsoft's own MapPoint location applications. There are games, there are micropayment interfaces and APIs.

In a year, it may still be the case that there are more Symbian phones than "Stinger" Smartphones. In five years' time, the situation is harder to call. But anybody who writes Microsoft off in this market will certainly have made the wrong call.