Keep Enemies Close: Microsoft Needs iPhone Apps

The most thrilling Microsoft product in years was killed before it ever officially existed. One of its most awesome services elicits more snickers than nods. Microsoft isn't even in the mobile space right now. Redmond, we have a problem.

Courier, simultaneously acknowledged and aborted in a bloody mess. Zune, a laughingstock that is in fact fantastic. Microsoft, the world's most famous software company, effectively sat out of smartphones for the last year (to be charitable) while it carried Windows Phone 7 to term, allowing Apple and Google to divvy up the spoils of the new frontier. It's a sad, sad turn of events.

But it's fixable. Microsoft just needs to act like a software company again. All of these amazing things Microsoft creates—like Courier and Zune—and necessary-if-not-so-awesome-things (Office): Develop them for other platforms. In other words, Courier should be an iPad and Windows Phone (Tablet?) app. Zune should be an iPhone and Android and webOS and BlackBerry and Windows Phone app. Why aren't there official Office apps for the iPhone and BlackBerry again?

Why should Microsoft deliver some of its most incredible creations to enemy platforms? It's the Kindle model, stupid. The iPad is Kindle's best worst frenemy. Even though the iPad competes against the plastic, E-Ink Kindle, the iPad is also perhaps the most fabulous delivery vehicle for Kindle the service—a huge part of the reason I stick with Kindle is because I know I can use it on basically any device I own. So, even though the iPad, with its monster sales, could eat into Kindle's massive ebook marketshare if it was solely a competitor, Amazon neutralized the threat in part by co-opting the larger platform for its own service.

The same principle could work just as neatly for Microsoft: Co-opt iOS and Android to push its own software and services while building the new Windows Phone from nothing. Realistically, a current iPhone owner isn't going to switch to Windows Phone next month. But if they're an Xbox Live member who allows themselves to get hooked on ZunePass because they're able to use it on the iPhone with an unlimited streaming app, much like Rhapsody or Mog—it's suddenly a little easier to switch to Windows Phone in the near future. In the meantime, there's another 100 million devices that can suddenly use Zune and see that it's awesome, or 10 million people who can use Courier (albeit, as an iPad app) and become hopelessly addicted to it. Oh, and hey look, Microsoft does make great software.

Xbox Live, on the other hand, is trickier. It's Microsoft's halo brand (no pun intended). There aren't so many Microsoft fanboys; but there are tons of Xbox fanboys. I'd love Live on the iPhone, like a lot of other people. But, it is an ace in the hole for Windows Phone. That, well, they maybe shouldn't give up. It's a reason to switch. Then again, gamers are still a minority compared to say, Office users.

Oh hey! Remember when Apple announced Microsoft Office and IE would come to Macs?

Back then, Apple needed Microsoft. Everyone's platform did, really. So badly that Apple agreed, as part of the deal, to make Internet Explorer the Mac's default browser. The crowd heckled. But now it's not quite so one-sided.

The rub, for Microsoft, is that everybody else—Google, Apple, whoever—is making it really easy to ditch them. As of now, going back to Microsoft is painful; inertia works against you. Microsoft should make it as frictionless as possible, so slippery you can slide right back into Microsoft's services like you never left. Letting me have ZunePass on my iPhone, and Courier on my iPad—connected to an amazing cloud service like KIN (RIP)—is how to make that happen. Microsoft, and the products it excels at, on every device I use.

The iPhone and iPod touch are seriously mainstream. They've got the momentum and the marketshare, while Microsoft has basically nothing right now. In the same position, Apple sucked it up by putting iTunes on Windows, and made out pretty goddamn handsomely. Otherwise, well, I'm not using them at all right now. Just like a whole hell of a lot of other people.

*This article makes an exception to its point in the case of Internet Explorer