Ballmer on mobile: Apple will lose and we'll win because 'we're separatists'

CEO Steve Ballmer has fighting words for Apple, but he keeps forgetting the party line, probably because it keeps changing.

If you've yet to watch Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's recent Churchill Club comments on everything from server virtualization to search to the mobile market, you're in for a treat. Ballmer is at his best, ripping on everything and everyone...except Microsoft.

Indeed, it's when Ballmer hits rewind on history to argue that Apple will lose in all the markets in which it is currently thriving--including smartphones and laptops--because it's not enough like Microsoft that he hits peak form:

Asked about smartphones, Ballmer said Nokia, Research In Motion, and Apple will all lose out as the market expands over the next five years, because they design their own proprietary hardware and tie it closely to their software.

Nokia leads the smartphone market today with about a 30 percent share, he said. "If you want to reach more than that, you have to separate the hardware and software in the platform," he said.

In other words, he thinks the same strategy that helped Microsoft become the leader on the desktop--licensing its OS for use by other hardware makers--will let it win out on smartphones. Long term, he said, the battle will be between the Symbian OS (which is now open source), mobile versions of Linux, and Windows Mobile.

I have some sympathy for this view, having argued that Google's Android is weakened by its lack of control over hardware (and boy, is its current hardware ugly). But this is a problem for the next few years.

Will Microsoft's strategy to separate hardware and software win long-term? Maybe. indeed, probably. But "in the long run," as John Maynard Keynes famously said, "we're all dead." Microsoft's mobile business may not be around long enough to be able to gloat over the iPhone's diminished fortunes because, well, those fortunes are rocking right now.

Besides, there may be some factors that favor Apple this time around, as MacDailyNews suggests--like Apple's current ability and willingness to bludgeon Microsoft with its patents (ugh) and like the lack of a contract to make it easy for Microsoft to pilfer from Apple's ideas. So, this time Microsoft may find it more difficult to replicate its stunning desktop success simply by separating hardware from software.

The ironic thing in all this is that Ballmer is (gasp!) talking out of both sides of his mouth (again). Ballmer recently said that Microsoft needs to start combining hardware and software to provide better experiences in mobile, like with the Zune. But then, if it weren't self-contradictory and hubris-filled, it wouldn't be classic Ballmer.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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