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Apple's Tyrannical Turtleneck Won't Fit Microsoft in Mobile

Lately, I feel like I'm in a mirror universe where up is down, black is white, and Microsoft is trying to become Apple. A company that built an empire through open partnerships has decided to go medieval on its closest allies, asserting strict control over the hardware and software on mobile devices that use its operating systems. Note to Ballmer: That turtleneck doesn't fit you.

This week, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft is actively trying to limit the number of vendors a chipmaker can partner with to create Windows 8 devices, which will result in fewer Windows 8 tablets overall. Imagine Dell being the only company allowed to make Windows 8 tablets with Intel processors in them.

This draconian strategy started with the launch of Windows Phone 7 last year. Vendors who want to manufacture Windows Phone 7 handsets must agree to a harsh set of restrictions; they can only use a certain screen, processor, and other key hardware components.  They can't modify the look and feel of Windows Phone 7 to make it look distinctive for their users; the best they can do is throw on a few applications and use a few of the tiles on the home screen.

Just as Apple only lets iOS developers sell their apps through the App Store, WP7 developers can only sell their applications through Microsoft's Windows 7 Marketplace. There's no way for users to side-load apps or for anyone to start an alternative market. Apps are even severely restricted in what they can do. Eight months after the WP7 launch, there's still no way to build a screen shot app, because one app cannot run in tandem with another.

This week at Computex, Acer CEO J.T. Wang said that Microsoft "is really controlling the whole thing" and that both he and his competitors feel the restrictions are "very troublesome." Based on what we're hearing, I can't blame him. With Android, Acer was able to produce the truly unique Acer Iconia Smart, which has compelling software and a higher res screen than the competition. With Microsoft's mobile OS, Wang's products look and act just like his competitors'.

While a partner- and developer-unfriendly lockdown may work well for Apple, it's not a model that Microsoft should follow. When trying to forge a new mobile strategy, Microsoft should learn from its own successful history of flexibility and collaboration with partners rather than trying to pick up a big stick and keep everyone in line. And that's exactly what seems to be happening with Windows 8.

Windows became the world's leading operating system precisely because it is so flexible. For decades, vendors have been free to use any hardware they want to build Windows PCs, and they've been allowed to customize the Windows software pre-load to their hearts' content. Developers have been able to program for Windows in dozens of different programming languages and distribute applications through literally millions of outlets, from download engines to retail stores.

With Android, Google is actually following the Windows model for success: build a strong OS and then let your partners innovate and make it their own. When HTC wants to develop the first LTE phone or the first Android tablet with pen input, CEO Peter Chou doesn't need to call Google's Andy Rubin and beg for a papal exemption. But if Chou wants to adopt these features on a Windows Phone 7 handset, he'll have to wait until Microsoft issues an edict from on high, telling his competitors that LTE is now part of the standard hardware build they all must use.

Some pundits have dinged Google for allowing its partners the freedom to try new things. They foolishly focus on subtle differences in the user experience from one phone to another, such as the UI enhancements that HTC has put into its Sense software that are different than those you'll find in Motorola's Motoblur overlay. But what they call "fragmentation" is really innovation. Without the freedom to push the envelope and make their products standout, there's little incentive for vendors to put a lot of eggs in Microsoft's basket.

Microsoft says that it is locking things down to provide a consistent experience for users, but in the end, the company is trying to play by Apple's rules rather than its own. Ballmer and company have taken the wrong message from Apple's success. Locking down its products is not the key to Apple's success. The iPad and iPhone continue to win because they are well made and marketed.

Microsoft won't succeed by picking up the big stick and trying to go it alone. To be a leading player in the mobile space, Ballmer and his charges needs to focus on the company's core strength in bringing developers and vendors together to build the best ecosystem, not pushing them away with high-handed edicts.