The shortest path from you to your friends… on your cell phone, too: Microsoft using social networks to capture the mobile platform

I’m not usually in the business of making grand predictions, and I’m not about to make one now. However, something interesting just happened.

1) A younger sibling of one of my friends stated “Win a phone at hello.no!” in her comment field in MSN Messenger. I think she’s 15.

2) The main advert at hello.no shows a Qtek 8300 smartphone – with the MSN logo on the display.

So, what’s the big deal?

Well. Back in the good old days, when I was less than 20 years old and we still used ICQ and IRC (a lot more than we do now), I vividly remember seeing a commercial at the cinema. It was quite brief, and stated: “MSN Messenger. The shortest path from you to your friends!” (loosly translated from Norwegian; “MSN Messenger – den korteste veien mellom deg og vennene dine!”).

We all know what happened. You won’t find many people below the age of 20 who aren’t using Microsoft’s MSN Messenger for instant messaging today.

The Qtek phone above is debuting at a quite attractive price point – 299 NOK (~ 45$), with a total cost including the subscription of about 440$. The fact that it can run MSN Messenger means that a lot of teens will want one. And, obviously, the fact that it runs MSN Messenger means that the operating system on the phone is Windows Mobile.

From now on, young people who like to stay in touch with their friends and send lots of SMSes have a new option – a phone which lets them save money on SMSes while having access to a lot of cool MSN features, like smileys and presence information.

If given the choice between a phone able to run Messenger and one that can’t, most teens will have no problem choosing. This will be a big problem for Nokia, Sony Ericsson and other vendors peddling phones with non-Windows OSes. In the long term, it could give Microsoft a decisive advantage on the cell phone platform – similar to the situation we now have in the desktop market.

The fact that services like instant messaging are now moving from the desktop to the mobile market gives MS a opportunity to turn their monopoly in one market into a monopoly in another. There’s no point in an instant messaging service on your phone if you can’t synchronize it with the one you’re using at your computer, and so a phone with Windows Mobile will be the only realistic option for someone who wants IM on their phone. It’s quite ridiculous. If I was Symbian / Nokia / Sony Ericsson, I would:

  • Fund the development of good MSN Messenger client alternatives for my phone operating system of choice
  • Push the telecoms authorities to recognize the MSN Messenger as a service so important that Microsoft cannot be permitted to own the protocol – it must be made public. This makes it a lot easier to create a competetive MSN network client.

This would remove most of Microsoft’s unfair advantage, I think. But I doubt it will happen soon enough to stop Microsoft from benefitting hugely from the monopoly in instant messaging that they enjoy (which they in turn achieved as a result of the monopoly on the desktop in general). However, it would at least mean that other vendors have a better chance at competing with Microsoft in the long term, both on the desktop and mobile platform.

PS: The situation in instant messaging is of course mirrored in other fields, like media players (Windows Media Player vs other players), web browsers (Internet Explorer vs others), office suites (MS Office vs OpenOffice) etcetera. But I’ll save the big picture for a later post.

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4 Responses to “The shortest path from you to your friends… on your cell phone, too: Microsoft using social networks to capture the mobile platform”

  1. Torgeir Says:

    One interesting thing, though, is that many countries in Asia, although using a lot of pirated MS software, use Yahoo! Messenger. For some reason, Yahoo! Messenger seems more stable than MSN Messenger over there (been there, recently). Asia is a huge market. The lack of infrastructure in some countries makes wireless solutions the way to go. Who will conquer Asia?

  2. Are Wold Says:

    Interesting comment!
    I’ve noted that the Chinese seem to be quite heavy Yahoo users, although I have only a couple of Chinese acquaintances to base that on. Looking forward to see how this unfolds.

    As for stability, MSN is really unimpressive even here. A few minutes ago I experienced something really hilarious. Next time you’re in a group chat in MSN, try writing something with the phrase download.php in it and see what happens. You may be familiar with the fact that a line containing download.php will be censored in a 1 on 1 chat, but in a group chat you’ll actually be “kicked” from the chat. How’s that for user-friendliness…

    I was using the MSN Messenger 8 beta, by the way.

    Thanks for commenting! I know you have a blog of your own, but it doesn’t look like it’s updated all that often ;)

  3. oyvindb Says:

    Yep, here in Vietnam we use the Yahoo! IM thing.. When the net goes bad (which is quite often recently) Yahoo always seem to somehow deliver its messages, MSN returns undelivered messages 5 minutes after you send them.. making it next to impossible to keep up a decent discussion.. I’m not sure if this is the reason for the huge installed base Yahoo IM has here though. I guess the easiest way to get the MSN protocol open would be trough the US strict antimonopoly laws, but I’m not even sure if MSN has a big enough user base to argue this anyway.. It looks like MSN will link up with Yahoo now very soon though, I came over this: http://www.cbronline.com/article_feature.asp?guid=B07CBE85-7360-43DB-9371-863E09A7657F

    It’s quite old and it refers to the second quarter of this year, which would be about now.. I hope the deal is still on.. don’t know to what extent the protocols will be similar though, looks more like a common interface to exchange messages between the two networks.

    Implementing the MSN protocol can of course be done by anyone.. I have a non-Microsoft commercial version of MSN running on my Symbian phone (PDA sized SE). An open standard would of course make it easier for anyone to make a competing client, but I think the real value of MSN is more in the brand and its appeal to the users you mention. Using the MSN brand to sell low budget phones is of course a great selling point.. just printing the familiar logo will have an enormous appeal to the users which will be very difficult to take away from Microsoft :-(

  4. Are Says:

    Good point about the power of the brand. I’ve used several third party MSN clients in the past, by the way (and Trillian now and then currently), but they always seem to lag just enough behind the original client to make me go back. There’s always some features that aren’t working properly, like webcams or voice.

    I think IM services should be seen as just another vital communications service, next to mobile phones and electrical power. Right now, the situation in IM corresponds to having a NetCom phone subscription and not being able to communicate with the guy having Telenor… ridiculous.

    I guess there are many industry standards for IM already (the SIP protocols?), but it doesn’t look like anyone cares, at least not in the consumer market. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of time. Interesting article on the Yahoo/MSN-thing – I guess consolidation could be seen as a natural step before standardization?

    There are so many facets to this, errrr, convergence phenomenon. I guess the big issue is – who will get the biggest marketshare in information services in the future, whether it’s on mobile phones, PCs or other devices. Instant messaging and mobile phones are just two small parts of it.

    Drat. This is what I should be writing my thesis on ;)

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