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Will Microsoft Finally Be a Player in Smartphones?

Change is afoot in the smartphone market, opening the door to new challenges and opportunities for market participants.

In 2016, demand for the iPhone fell for the first time since its introduction nearly 10 years ago -- a contributing factor in Apple's first annual revenue decline in 15 years.

Samsung, on the other hand, maintained its smartphone market leadership position even with the Galaxy Note 7 fire debacle. In a move to maintain its market share leadership position, Samsung is rumored to be readying the upcoming Galaxy S8 to allow the device smartphone to plug into a screen for use as a desktop personal computer. With this feature, users would have the option of traveling with one device vs. the two to three most of us travel with today.

I wrote about this sort of capability six years ago in the No Jitter article, "Tablets Coming to a Garage Sale Near You." At that time, new mobile devices from BlackBerry and Motorola had interfaces that would allow monitor, keyboard, and mouse connectivity... the first attempts to turn a smartphone into a desktop personal computer.

Universal Mobility Pipedream
Technology has come a long way in six years. Moore's Law has delivered on the promise of more powerful processors. The ability to handle storage and application processing in the cloud has shifted some of the storage and processing burden off the mobile device. Standards have provided several short-range wireless networking options, including near field communication (NFC), Wi-Fi Direct, and higher-speed Bluetooth for use in connecting traditional PC peripherals. It is easy to see how these technology advances could turn a smartphone into a universal mobile communication/collaboration (UMC) device.

Imagine carrying only one device when you travel. Your hotel-provided devices -- today a TV and keyboard; tomorrow, perhaps, a rollable screen -- along with your UMC replaces your laptop computer. This approach presumes UMC vendors use standards-based interfaces rather than proprietary interfaces as BlackBerry and Motorola did back in the day. The rumors surrounding Samsung's Galaxy S8 suggest the same.

Room to Move
With such changes in store, the question to ask is whether Microsoft can gain respectable market share in the smartphone market. It appears to have a good start on several fronts. First, Microsoft's anticipated Surface Phone will run a full operating system (a version of Windows 10) rather than use a lightweight OS as do all other smartphones available to date.

Second, Microsoft reportedly will be supporting standards-based wired and wireless peripheral interfaces. If other smartphone vendors follow suit, the hotel scenario outlined above will happen much sooner than later.

Third, Microsoft has had great success with its Surface products. As evidence, several noted journalists/analysts recently wrote articles about switching from Mac to Surface Book:

Also rumored is that Microsoft will try to leapfrog the competition with several key smartphone innovations, including the ability to control the device by hover/gesturing without making contact with the screen. As with the current Surface products, Microsoft is expected to go after the high end of the market with a focus on enterprise customers.

There are certainly many reasons to doubt Microsoft will move the needle on its market share, particularly its continued failure to attract developers to build apps for the platform. Samsung and others are likely to provide new features that will keep their following loyal. And certainly, not the least is Apple's 10-year iPhone anniversary release expected later this year. The big question is how far Apple will evolve the next iPhone, and whether it will address the enterprise market by turning the device into a UMC.

Any way you cut it, I am looking forward to a new mobile device in 2017.