Why Amazon Can Win in Mobile, While Microsoft Sputters

In the span of two days, the Seattle region’s two cornerstone technology companies showed why they’re the most credible challengers to the current duopoly in mobile computing. And it’s pretty clear that only one has a chance to succeed.

First up was Microsoft, which presented (via its desperate partner Nokia) an innovative, interesting-looking pair of smartphones that definitely stand out from other handsets on the market.

Then we got the treatment from Amazon, the online shopping pioneer with breathtaking ambitions that include premium tablet computers. The new line of Kindle devices that Amazon showed off Thursday include updated e-readers and three versions of its tablet, the Kindle Fire, which packed big improvements in technology for bargain prices.

The two visions on display this week could not have been more different. In short, Amazon was showing us the future of consumer mobile computing, while Microsoft and Nokia were speaking a language that dated to somewhere around the debut of the iPhone.

In this knife fight for consumers, only Amazon’s vision will truly have a chance of making a difference. Sadly for Nokia, and by extension poor old Microsoft, the inability to see where modern digital consumers’ hearts lie will spell doom.

Even if you’re a critic of the company’s many hard-to-swallow stances on public policy issues, success for Amazon in the tablet market will be a good thing for the consumer and the broader technology ecosystem. And a failure for Microsoft, no matter whether it’s deserved, would be a huge loss for more than just the folks in Redmond.

The reason is that, as Xconomy’s Wade Roush detailed last year, the mobile world is now controlled by two huge forces: Apple and its iOS on one side, and Google’s Android operating system on the other. (For hardware purposes, Android is currently tied to both Samsung and Google’s Motorola branch.)

There are some complications here—mainly that Amazon uses a heavily customized version of Android to run its tablets. But remember that Amazon’s fiddling cuts out Google’s digital services, like location and other key data-mining efforts, making the OS its own.

The Windows Phone operating system is a very well-reviewed product, and certainly presents some innovative features and a much different experience for the user than the other modern operating system. But it’s got a tremendously late start on making up the gap in smartphones.

Nokia, once a global leader, has tied its fate to the Microsoft platform. And Microsoft certainly needs its closest and most important smartphone partner to succeed with its treasured OS, if it hopes the platform to do well.

But the pair is so far behind that it will need to absolutely market the living daylights out of these phones to make a real dent. And the first salvo of marketing, this week’s big presentations from both Microsoft and Amazon, had me feeling much more dubious about the Windows Phone’s prospects.

While the Nokia/Microsoft device unveiling was chock full of features, brand names, corporate executives, and fancy multimedia, it was fundamentally selling a product from a time gone by. Buy our phone—it’s got the best camera! Its touchscreen can be used with gloves! Its polycarbonite shell is a beautiful, durable wonder!

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, strode the stage alone. He had some videos too, and at times an over-the-top assault of specifications and product niches. But Bezos communicated a central idea that shows how much Amazon fundamentally gets the modern consumer. Here’s that part, as transcribed from the excellent liveblog by The Verge:

“Last year, there were more than two dozen Android tablets launched into the marketplace, and nobody bought ’em.

“Why? Because they’re gadgets, and people don’t want gadgets anymore. They want services that improve over time. They want services that improve every day, every week, and every month.

“Kindle Fire is a service.”

Rewind to the Microsoft/Nokia presentation for a second, and ask yourself what you heard about connected digital services that have a life beyond this product cycle. There was Microsoft’s SkyDrive, its online storage service that could be a real strength. … Next Page »

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