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Microsoft’s mobile strategy: Too little, too late for partners?

Microsoft will pitch its smartphone and tablet strategy at the Worldwide Partner Conference, but some VARs fear the mobile-device ship has already sailed.

Microsoft’s struggles to crack the smartphone and tablet PC markets are weighing on channel partners.

It took the PC software powerhouse until late last year to finally release a decent smartphone OS, Windows Phone 7. And the company’s latest tablet strategy relies on Windows 8, which won’t be available for another year. As the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 2011 begins this week, this slow pace has some attendees concerned about losing business, thanks to mobile devices forcing their way into customers’ IT departments.

“I would love to be talking to my customers about a Microsoft-based solution that they’re looking for around tablets … and we can’t, because it’s not there,” said Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies, a Microsoft partner in Fairfax, Va.

But others said Microsoft still has time to right the ship, because customers are still warming up to the idea of supporting so many mobile devices.

“While Microsoft might be last to the dance, they might actually be in good shape as the market matures and business needs clarify where these devices really fit in,” said Rand Morimoto, president of Microsoft partner Convergent Computing in Oakland, Calif.

Microsoft targets business users

Microsoft says Tuesday’s Worldwide Partner Conference keynote will feature the latest Windows devices that businesses and end users need to get the job done. Unlike Apple’s strategy with the iPhone and iPad, Microsoft pitches its device to business users, stressing features such as Office integration. But that’s not enough to build a large customer base, Sobel said, pointing out apps on other devices that can handle Office documents.

“Phone 7 is great, but is it so much different or better than the competitor? It’s not,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of getting caught up. It’s a matter of pushing ahead.”

Microsoft’s late entry to the tablet market also hurts, Sobel added.

“The fact that they’re not doing it fast enough is going to be a huge problem,” he said. “Their answer to tablets is Windows 8, which isn’t going to be out until next year. I think we’re going to be on the iPad 3 by then.”

Morimoto said Microsoft’s slow pace isn’t costing his company business  -- yet. Dozens of his customers are exploring tablets, but only two are using them for “real business” tasks, Sobel said.

“The other organizations are really just dealing with the CEO who bought an iPad and wants to check his email or really wants to try to run business apps on the iPad, but realizes that he’s still better off with a laptop,” he added.

Can Microsoft hit another home run?

There are glimpses of hope that Microsoft can succeed in these new markets. Analyst Darren Bibby, who runs IDC’s Software Channels and Alliances program, noted the popularity of Kinect, Microsoft’s motion-sensing add-on for its Xbox 360 video game system.

“It’s consumer and it’s fun, but they really hit a home run there,” he said.

Some partners, however, may not want to wait to see how Microsoft fares in the mobile market.

“There [are] partners that are going to make other decisions with other vendors, and there are some that hope Microsoft is going to get their act together,” Bibby said.

Sobel said he’s firmly in the latter camp.

“We don’t have the relationship with Apple or with Google, and neither of those companies are building channels. They’re just not. … Of all my partners, I want to win with Microsoft the most. They’re just kind of a little lost right now. This is a really critical time for them.”

Many observers point out that Microsoft is usually late to new markets, but makes up for that with sheer persistence. But there is a feeling now that with Google and Apple tearing up the smartphone and tablet markets with Android and iOS, respectively, that Microsoft, in this instance, has already run out of time.

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