Opinion: Microsoft and Google make strides in mobile war

RIM and HP are being left in the dust, says Bill Snyder

Competition in the mobile platform market is ramping up. The Skype acquisition shows that Microsoft has realised it has to do something truly radical if it wants to break away from the pack of losers and establish credibility for the Windows Phone. Google, meanwhile, is suddenly acting like a grown-up company, making nice with the carriers and, more importantly, moving to fix fragmentation on the Android platform. Ballmer and company now own one of technology's best brands, a company with some 170 million active users a month and a name that is well on the way to becoming a verb, as in "I will Skype you later." And a combination of Skype and a Windows tablet or smartphone equipped with front-facing cameras will be a powerful combination — video calling represented about 42 percent of all Skype-to-Skype minutes for the fourth quarter of 2010, according to a Skype filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that also outlines the company's improving financials. A few hours after the news of the Skype buy broke, I was chatting (via Skype, of course) with my friend Jo who lives south of Santiago, Chile. "Oh my God," she said when I told her the news. "We won't be doing this much longer." I hope she is wrong, but her reaction highlights challenge number one for Microsoft: Don't mess with Skype's 663 million registered users. Microsoft has a well-deserved reputation for crummy customer service and user-unfriendly software, and people like Jo will be quick to notice a decline in service or usability. Because Microsoft already has VoIP capability — Lync — in-house, it is possible there will be an internal fight over the direction of voice technology. That could be a disaster, although making Skype a business unit on a par with the others is a smart management move. The biggest opportunity – and the reason I like the deal – is the huge boost it will give to Windows Phone. Video calling is growing rapidly and is a technology with huge appeal to consumers and businesses. Baking Skype into Windows Phone would give users a reason to buy one, while developers would have more reasons to write to the platform. And keeping Skype out of Google's hands was critical: Google already has a big presence in telephony with Google Voice and video messaging; Microsoft couldn't afford to fall further behind. Google's "Ice Cream Sandwich" play is easy to understand. Combining Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" and 3.0 "Honeycomb," respectively the smartphone and tablet versions of Android, makes enormous sense. Only a small percentage of Android smartphones are running the most recent version, a disconnect that confuses users who wonder what they will get when they choose an Android smartphone – and that turns off developers. Google is partnering with handset makers and carriers to create update guidelines, a smart move and a sign that the company is (finally) maturing. Also announced at its recent Google I/O conference was Music Beta, a service that allows users to store as many as 20,000 songs online and stream them to their computer or Android mobile devices. Additionally, Google unveiled a movie-rental service, featuring thousands of movies that can be streamed or downloaded to Android devices. It is a cliché to say that content is king, but like many clichés it is true. Apple won the hearts of consumers with iTunes and the thousands of apps on its App Store. I don't expect Google to overtake Apple, but all three announcements should have Steve Jobs looking over his shoulder. The bottom line on the moves by Microsoft and Google: They're great news for developers and consumers, and terrible news for HP and RIM, which are slipping further and further into irrelevance in the mobile wars.

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Tags skypeGoogleMicrosofttechnologysteve ballmerAndroid

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