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Jobs steps down, Google buys Motorola: Time for Microsoft to make a move?

by Phil Hornshaw

With Apple CEO Steve Jobs stepping down and bringing about what many people see as the end of an era, and Google acquiring mobile phone maker Motorola Mobility and rolling it into its Android mobile operating system business, it might be the perfect time for Microsoft to gain some traction in the mobile OS market.

Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s platform, has been struggling, but not for lack of effort. The system is adding features and apps all the time, and its app store offers about 11,500 apps with more developers joining, although not at the same pace as its competitors. Its 11,500 apps isn’t exactly on par with the hundreds of thousands available in the iTunes App Store and the Android Market, but it’s a start. And Microsoft has its recent deal with Nokia, which means Windows Phone 7 will be available on more devices and therefore in front of more consumers, so there is potential growth in Microsoft’s corner.

And big moves by Apple and Google may actually be helping to bolster Microsoft’s position. As GigaOM points out, Google merging with Motorola was mostly about Google acquiring Motorola’s patents so it could fight off lawsuits, but that acquisition has the secondary function of putting a handset maker under Google’s umbrella. That makes things a bit weird for other device makers.

Up to now, Google has been pretty hands-off with the actual phone portion of the smartphone market. It has released a pair of Google-branded Nexus smartphones, the first from HTC and the second from Samsung, but that’s about as close as Google has gotten with any particular company up to now. It has gone to bat for other device makers, like HTC, in legal disputes, but that has been more or less to defend the stability of Android as an operating system and Google’s partners who use it.

With a handset maker now belonging to Google, GigaOM points out other device maker are a bit nervous. Google has pledged that nothing will change in how it deals with other companies, but that seems somewhat impossible – how could it not show favoritism to the company Google owns? The GigaOM story discusses how many smaller device makers are now considering Windows Phone 7 an alternative to Android. Here’s a quote:

‘We see a number of major vendors very seriously considering Windows Mobile as a core platform and therefore we are following their lead and examining it as well to complement our work in Android to date,’ said Frank Meehan, chief executive officer (CEO) of INQ, the Hutchison Whampoa company that came up with a Skype phone and a Facebook phone. Meehan is worried about the latest Android development. Hutchison owns and operates 3G networks across the world under the brand name, ‘3.’ And when he says Windows Mobile, he does mean Windows Phone 7 operating system.

If Google might be alienating handset makers, it also has a lot of developers on its operating system that are none too happy about the way some things are handled. Fragmentation between devices is an issue, as is generally getting exposure for apps and making any money on the OS – so if more handsets start to carry Windows Phone 7 and it becomes a more viable alternative to Android, more developers will start to flock to it, which will help Windows gain popularity.

And then there’s Apple. While Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook, has sent an email to Apple employees that nothing is going to change, according to TechCrunch, there will undoubtedly be changes. Regardless, Apple is in transition and its investors are a little worried about the future in general. It won’t be the death or decline of Apple by any stretch. Right now, Apple is too big and powerful to be toppled by the removal of one man, but it does present an opportunity for Windows to establish itself while Apple is busy adjusting to life in the post-Jobs world.

It’ll probably take a big move. Windows’ deal with Nokia was a step in the right direction, but the OS needs something big to set it apart from its competitors. A big app store won’t do it; a bunch of handsets that are finally getting “cut-and-paste” capabilities won’t either. Windows needs something fundamental that it can offer that other technologies can’t, or at least something that makes customers look twice instead of dismissing Windows Phone 7 devices as “just another smartphone.”

And now’s the time to roll it out.