As Microsoft stumbles forward, is it a good idea to have its head in The Cloud?

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Microsoft has been having a lousy year. And the worst part of it may be that people aren't interested in its misery -- certainly not in this week of obsessing over Apple.

The company that once defined much of personal computing has spent the first half of 2010 suffering indignities large and small. Key executives behind some of the company's more successful recent efforts have announced early retirements; its unimpressive new Office 2010 software has seen ho-hum sales; and the stock market now values Apple more than Microsoft.

At a speech that kicked off Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in the District on Monday morning, chief executive Steve Ballmer tried to put a positive spin on things. But a look at three topics discussed in Ballmer's speech and highlighted in product exhibits at the Washington Convention Center shows the kind of trouble the Redmond, Wash., company finds itself in.

In the interest of being nice, let's get the worst part out of the way first: mobile devices. In no other market does Microsoft look more lost at the plate.

Back in February, Microsoft publicly abandoned its Windows Mobile operating system when it announced that it was developing a replacement, Windows Phone 7, that wouldn't work with any hardware or software shipped for that older platform over the past decade.

Would-be buyers of Windows-based phones could only have been more confused two months later when Microsoft unveiled a different, equally incompatible line of smartphones under the Kin brand name. Was this the real hope for Microsoft's mobile efforts?

Evidently not: In July, less than two months after the Kin One and Kin Two debuted in Verizon Wireless stores, Microsoft terminated the entire project.

Meanwhile, Apple's new iPhone 4 -- reception issues and all -- and the latest crop of Google Android-powered smartphones have already vaulted past Windows Phone 7's promised features with such added capabilities as videoconferencing.

The picture isn't brighter in tablet computing. Back in January, Ballmer used part of his Consumer Electronics Show keynote to talk up "slate computers" -- small, touch-screen models running Windows 7.

Three weeks later, Apple introduced the iPad, which has since sold fantastically well. Meanwhile, HP -- the company whose prototype slate Ballmer displayed at CES -- seems to have quietly dropped that effort and looks far more likely to ship a tablet running the webOS software of its newly acquired subsidiary Palm.

At WPC, however, Microsoft seemed determined to plow ahead with the same slate vision as before, despite historical evidence of its riskiness (anybody remember the "Ultra Mobile PC"?).

Processing power and battery technology have advanced since that venture flopped in 2006, but it's still difficult to see how a Windows 7-based slate will outperform tablets based on such mobile operating systems as Android, webOS and Apple's iOS.

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