So in the span of one year, we have Microsoft failing to acquire Nokia, “losing” a top executive, and now having one of the most recognizable mobile hardware vendors in the world under its thumb. There’s no question in my mind that the next generation of flagship Windows Phones will come from Nokia, and for that, Microsoft will have unprecedented influence over the hardware that runs its software. We like to think of Steve Ballmer throwing chairs when his executives leave. I think this time he told Elop, “Fine. Go get me some hardware I can own.” Elop did.
Back in the 90s, at the height of the Platform Wars, experts pointed to Apple and said that their problem was that they didn’t know whether they wanted to be a hardware company or a software company. The received opinion was that Apple should get out of the hardware business and licence its operating system.
They did try the licensing thing for a while, but then Steve Jobs returned to Apple and put a stop to it.
For the past three years or so, as the iPhone has defined the smartphone market and the mobile web, the experts have been saying the opposite. The problem for Microsoft is that they can’t give consumers the best possible experience of their mobile offering if they don’t have control of the hardware.
One of the characteristics of the Google Android platform is that there’s no uniformity between phones that run Android. Hardware manufacturers use different versions of it; they don’t make it clear whether the software can be upgraded to more recent versions, and they sometimes put their own software on the phones on top of or beside the Android OS.
On Friday, Microsoft and Nokia announced a deal under which Nokia would more or less abandon its own operating system and start using Microsoft Windows Phone 7. As the Apple Outsider says in the quote above: this looks very much like Microsoft have just acquired themselves a hardware company – without having to pay anything for it.