A few weeks ago, I spent some time at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference, which was focused mostly on Windows Vista. There was, however, a good deal of activity centered on Microsoft's mobile technology efforts, and what I saw there makes me think that Microsoft is going to become a major force in that area in the near future.

Windows Mobile devices have been ridiculed for being poorly designed and prone to crashing and for providing an inadequate telephony experience (see HP's experience with the iPaq h6315). But as with many things Microsoft, patience is rewarded for those who stick with the platform. The latest release, Windows Mobile 5.0, seems rock-solid and overcomes almost all the software problems of older versions.

But software alone doesn't make for a great mobile experience. Hardware matters a lot, and form and function are intertwined.

The devices have grown up
The latest crop of devices coming to the market (such as the new iPaqs) reflects three trends that I believe will make them a success. This doesn't mean that Microsoft will dominate the mobile market the way it has the PC desktop; instead, it will likely be a strong player among many. (The notion that Microsoft needs to dominate in order to be a success is wrong in general.)

First, Microsoft has finally focused on the core telephony experience. For end users, telephony is the single most important function in mobile devices, according to my firm's research. Ignore telephony or compromise that function, and your device will fail in the market. The new Windows Mobile-based smart phones are phones first and foremost, with dedicated keypads and a one-hand usage model. Major improvements allow even the more complex Pocket PC devices to be used as passable phones, and almost all critical features on the Pocket PC devices have been made accessible with one hand. This is a crucial change from past devices, which needed two hands to operate them.

Second, Microsoft has finally cracked the often elusive and difficult carrier market, in the US and elsewhere. While the mobile platform has been around for a while, offerings that included telephony weren't widely available from U.S. carriers. That's all changed now. Microsoft has product offerings from nearly all major carriers in the US, so whichever provider a US user is with, he or she is likely to have the opportunity to choose a Windows Mobile offering of some sort. In addition, Microsoft is signing more licenses, most notably with Palm which will introduce a Windows Mobile version of the Treo. This bodes very well for Microsoft, whose mobile technology had often been derided by Palm CTO Jeff Hawkins.
I can't overstate how big a win this is for Microsoft, both from a psychological perspective, as it gets an old rival to embrace its platform, and from a market-share perspective, as it gets one of the most popular mobile devices to run Windows. That's the key to getting momentum going for the longer haul.
Finally, Microsoft and its partners have come to the realisation that one size doesn't fit all. We will see a multitude of sizes in the months ahead, including hot designs like the razor-thin Q smart phone from Motorola and the aforementioned Treo. That means users will be able to pick the shape that works for them, but more important, IT departments will be able to leverage development and support for a common platform.
Windows Mobile has to hit consumers
One thing Microsoft needs to remember is that the buying centres for these devices have shifted. Microsoft is focused mostly on the business-purchase funnel for Windows Mobile devices, but in reality a lot of them are going to be bought as one-offs by end users rather than being purchased directly by IT, and these devices are going to get both business and personal use. That means other factors beyond just business-level functionality are going to be involved in the purchase decision. (It's worth noting that in the latest Microsoft reorganisation, Windows Mobile is no longer in the Windows platform group under Jim Allchin but is instead in Robbie Bach's group, which focuses on consumer products such as the Xbox.)
If Microsoft and its partners can capitalise on this trend and market the devices' non-business features, such as digital entertainment, the combination of new devices, availability and enterprise compatibility could prove to be a winning formula.
Michael Gartenberg is vice president and research director for the Personal Technology & Access and Custom Research groups at JupiterResearch in New York. This column appeared in Computerworld