Microsoft's mobile strategy should learn from Android

The software company is taking Apple's closed-platform approach to mobile, a strategy fraught with peril and inconsistent with its somewhat open platform past.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Microsoft just closed the door on Firefox development for its new Windows Phone 7 Series. It didn't overtly discriminate against Firefox developers. Instead, it did what we increasingly see platform owners like Apple do:

I know how to make money, too.

Microsoft set up rigid development parameters that favor its own technology over alternative approaches.

I don't think Microsoft did this because it's evil. I suspect it simply wants to create an Apple-like experience where everything "just works" because the experience is tightly controlled.

But that doesn't make the decision wise. And it's not actually consistent with Microsoft's past, which is far more open than most of us normally acknowledge.

Yes, Microsoft's history is checkered by its monopolistic practices and its at-times thinly-veiled animosity toward open source and open standards, but its Windows ecosystem was actually quite open compared to then-extant market alternatives. It had to be. Platforms, by definition, are more valuable the more third-party software runs on them.

Microsoft couldn't afford to not be open.

As Microsoft has grown, it has competed more and more with its partners (including, at times, through illegal tying arrangements between its products), stifling its platform growth because such growth has become overly dependent on Microsoft as the source of all innovation, rather than its partner ecosystem.

Now, in mobile, by insisting that developers work with Silverlight and XNA, rather than more industry-neutral options, Microsoft will dramatically constrain its developer ecosystem even if it optimizes its mobile development for Windows-based phones.

It would be one thing if it, like Apple, already had a large and growing footprint in mobile. Then developers would have to get in the Microsoft line, regardless of terms. But it doesn't: Microsoft's user and developer base for mobile is in decline.

And so Microsoft is playing a high-stakes poker game that it is ill-equipped to win with a closed-platform strategy. Yes, it's a path that could succeed spectacularly, as Apple's iPhone has, but it's more likely to fail miserably, given that a closed approach is the wrong strategy for the underdog, and Microsoft is very much the underdog in mobile.

This isn't Microsoft's only option. It could take the Google road.

In the growing list of closed ecosystems, Google Android is winning widespread support. Google Android isn't perfect, but it's an open development platform with a host of other benefits.

No, Google has not always been entirely open with its community. But it's far more open than the alternatives, including Windows Phone 7 Series.

And that openness matters, as Mozilla CEO John Lilly writes, because a closed box limits freedom and creativity:

I'll get an iPad and am really excited about it from an interaction point of view...and because it makes computing more human scale than ever--just like my Kindle has done. But I have real misgivings about it because of the controlled, closed stance that it's starting from, and that other technology companies and technologists are adopting.

Microsoft could play an open game. Tim O'Reilly has suggested Microsoft has every incentive to be the leading proponent of the open Web as it plays catch-up with Google. That same incentive applies to its efforts in mobile. Microsoft needs an open ecosystem to win in mobile, and scaring off developers like Mozilla isn't a sign that it's on the right track.