The flagship strategy of mobile phones — Microsoft needs one

In the wake of the iPhone over the last few years, it seems that the market is responding to a business model different than the PC’s that preceded it. Mobile phones seem to require a very tight integration of hardware and software (and arguably service) to make a splash.

Apple fans will say, “Well, duh!”. But Apple lost the PC battle for 20 years. Only in the last five years or so has their model succeeded. (I would suggest this is because PC buyers are moving up Maslow’s hierarchy.)

The classic (Microsoft) model is that the software matters but the hardware doesn’t. So they focus on making their software available on as many brands of hardware as possible.

Microsoft approached the mobile space the same way — they offered Windows Mobile to hardware makers and let them take it from there.

And again, this worked for a while. Windows Mobile was the “quiet” leader for several years — they shipped tens of millions of WinMo phones (though I am having trouble finding good historical stats).

But now that customers are demanding more, companies need to be able to promote a complete, branded solution. An experience, not a handset or an OS.

Google, maker of the Android mobile operating system, seems to be catching on to this. On the one hand, they are like Microsoft in that they don’t care to make hardware. On the other, they know that the iPhone is the one to beat.

So they’ve taken on a flagship strategy. They work with hardware providers (and carriers) to create flagship phones which have their own unique brand. They dipped their toe into the water with the G1 on T-mobile. Now they are taking it to the next level, working with Motorola and Verizon on the Droid brand.

Each of these is a flagship phone. You’ll notice that Google hasn’t allowed these flagships to overlap in terms of timing — there is always a single “coolest Android phone of the moment”. Lust (perhaps) follows.

Microsoft needs to awaken to this market reality. I can’t name a WinMo phone right now, and that’s a problem.

Windows Mobile had market share and a developer ecosystem before the iPhone even existed. It’s a mature product. And of course MS can buy whatever talent they need. But they’ve let their relevance slip away, for reasons I can’t fathom.

The Zune music player seems beautiful. It’s a flagship that says, “this is the state of our art”.

Microsoft needs a WinMo flagship, and its brand must be new. When will we see it?