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In mobile, open source is a winning strategy

To attract new developers to the seemingly moribund Windows Mobile, Microsoft should try an open-source complement strategy similar to that of SharePoint.

Symbian has the market share; Apple's iPhone has the mind share. The future of mobile, however, will be owned by the company or project that best appeals to developers, especially open-source developers. Microsoft, with its long-standing interest in developers, also needs to reach out to open-source developers, if it wants to succeed.

Part of this reason is cost. As IBM's Savio Rodrigues suggests, Research In Motion could reduce its cost and improve the reach of its platform through open source:

RIM should be utilizing R&D investments more effectively by leveraging existing open-source projects. RIM could have built (its software development kit) for a lower investment by starting with PhoneGap or an equivalent open-source framework...This was absolutely a missed opportunity for RIM to compete versus Apple, Palm, and others using open source.

No, I'm not going to suggest that RIM open-source the BlackBerry Enterprise Server; that would be silly. Rather, I believe RIM could have saved R&D costs, increased the value of its BlackBerry platform, and influenced developers building for the iPhone, if RIM had built the Widget SDK on top of (an) open-source project like PhoneGap.

Symbian is taking this road, as Michael Mace points out, putting developers, and not itself, at the center of attention. The more money third-party developers can make with Symbian, the better off Symbian will be.

Palm, too, is trying to appeal to open-source developers by making it cheap and lucrative to develop for Palm devices.

Apple's world, by contrast, comes with a hugely sexy device, optimized distribution...and low return on investment for its developers, according to Newsweek. In Apple's world, developers add value to Apple, but not necessarily to themselves.

Microsoft is different. Although the company has not committed its mobile strategy to open source, it is a company that has a serious romance with developers. With 97 percent of its sales coming through its channel, Microsoft depends upon third-party development and distribution partners.

Windows Mobile 6.5 Microsoft

Now Microsoft is launching Windows Mobile 6.5, a light upgrade to previous versions that has failed to catch the media's attention. Today, the company has few--246, to be exact--applications available for version 6.5 in its Windows Marketplace for Mobile, but it has more than 20,000 designed for Windows Mobile 6.0 and 6.1.

The question, however, is whether it can attract new developers to the seemingly moribund Windows Mobile, which declined in market share to just 9 percent of handsets shipped in the second quarter of 2009, according to The Wall Street Journal. An open-source complement strategy, similar to what it's using for SharePoint and its CRM product, could help.

It must, as Google is calling.

Microsoft has no choice but at least dabble in open source, regardless of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's publicly sanguine stance on Google. Open-source Google Android is starting to make waves, even if its momentum can be overhyped. Verizon has jumped on the Android bandwagon, citing the "unmatched openness and flexibility of the Android platform."

Open source isn't an afterthought for Google. It's a core business strategy. And it's winning converts.

Ballmer pooh-poohs Android and further discards "free as a business model," but he acknowledges that Android represents open source, with significant financial resources behind it.

There's more to it than this. Free is a great business model, one that Microsoft has used to tremendous effect, as Internet Explorer, SharePoint, Bing, and other Microsoft successes demonstrate and as Techdirt highlights.

Microsoft needs to integrate open source into its mobile strategy. It needs developer attention. As CNET's Ina Fried reports, a recent Windows Mobile 6.5 session at Code Camp attracted just six developers. You don't win with numbers like that, and you don't get developers without open source, anymore.

Microsoft could attempt to replicate Apple's model of mobile success, but its DNA is more Google than Apple. Microsoft rightly recognized early on that building products soup-to-nuts, as Apple does, was not the best model to achieve ubiquity (even if some suggest that this model has broken the PC industry). That model works great, early in the formation of a market, as Clayton Christensen theorizes, but it loses its efficacy in mature markets.

Microsoft could attempt to replicate Apple's model of mobile success, but its DNA is more Google than Apple.

Mobile doesn't yet count as "mature," but it's getting there fast.

An enabling strategy similar to what Microsoft did on the "desktop" would succeed in mobile, too, but it's going to require a Googlesque open-source approach for Microsoft--not the Apple approach.

This isn't to suggest that Microsoft should open-source everything. As I learned from my own open-source mobile days at Lineo, to build a successful business in mobile (or elsewhere), you've got to own something.

Google is interested in owning the advertising that results from greater mobile Web browsing and other mobile services. For Microsoft, it could match this, and extend it with ties to its server and personal computer businesses, like SharePoint. It probably can't afford, however, to try to build a big per-unit licensing business--not with Google undermining that model with its free Android.

Microsoft simply needs to find the right "format" in which to deliver its open-source mobile strategy. The software giant has 90,000-plus employees. Surely, one of them can figure this out.