Once upon a time, Microsoft would rarely release a product on a competitor's platform. Those days may be over. At the end of last year, Microsoft launched a blizzard of apps for iPhones, iPads and Android phones. That's good news for anyone who cares about the company's future. The app blitz was noteworthy not just for the breadth of the apps Microsoft released, but also because many of them were tied to core Microsoft products or services for which the company expects big growth in the future.
Consider one of Microsoft's most successful big-growth consumer products in the past several years, Xbox 360, which is aimed at an important demographic: gamers. In years past, Microsoft tended to use such a foothold to help promote its own products exclusively and not help any competitors. If Microsoft were still thinking that way, it would release Xbox 360 mobile apps only for Windows Phone 7, in hopes of spurring Xbox 360 users to buy Windows Phone 7 devices.
Surprise! Near the end of 2011, Microsoft released several Xbox 360 mobile apps not just for Windows Phone 7, but for Apple's iOS platform as well. There's My Xbox Live for iOS, which lets gamers use Xbox 360 features on iPads and iPhones. There's also an iOS version of Kinectimals, a game that lets people interact with virtual pets, and Halo Waypoint for iOS, a companion to Microsoft's mega-selling Halo game.
Microsoft didn't just target gamers, though. It also released apps right in its sweet spot of business users and the enterprise market . It released iOS and Android versions of a mobile app for Lync, its unified business communications service, and it updated its existing iOS OneNote app, improving it in a variety of ways, including taking advantage of the iPad 's larger screen.
Other releases include a SkyDrive iPhone app for browsing Microsoft's cloud -based storage service and a tag reader app for the iPhone and Android devices that can scan QR codes and also read NFC signals.
All these apps, of course, are also available for Windows Phone 7. But by making them available on competing devices as well, Microsoft has shown that it recognizes that it can't own every customer completely and that people are likely to use multiple platforms for multiple purposes. It's facing up to the cold fact that someone who uses Xbox 360 is more likely to own an iPhone or an Android device than a Windows Phone 7 device simply because Windows Phone 7 has such a small user base.
Releasing iOS and Android apps is a way to keep existing customers happy while attracting new ones. Having an Xbox 360 app for iOS and Android devices becomes a selling point for people considering buying a gaming system.
The same holds true for the enterprise market. Companies will more likely want to use a service like Lync if it supports a wide variety of mobile platforms. And this also holds true in the vast market for Internet-connected consumers. If Microsoft wants SkyDrive to succeed against competitors, it needs to deliver apps for the devices that the greatest number of people use.
Preston Gralla is a Computerworld.com contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).
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