Though Apple launched its iPhone app store more than five months ago, Microsoft had chosen to remain on the sidelines until this weekend. Redmond's thinking may have been that adding applications to the iPhone ecosystem would just make its Cupertino, Calif., rival stronger.
However, data released last week showed that, for the first time, the iPhone's market share in North America and worldwide was larger than that of all Windows Mobile-based devices combined. The iPhone now holds 12.9% of the market, with Windows Mobile down to 11.1% from 12.8% a year ago, according to Gartner.
Those numbers may have prompted Microsoft to conclude that it must support the iPhone if it wants to be a serious player in the mobile applications market. Not only does Microsoft now trail the iPhone in North America, Windows Mobile is utterly dwarfed by the open source Symbian OS in international markets.
Microsoft officially entered the iPhone application market Saturday, with the launch of its Seadragon Mobile image browsing software. The app lets users easily navigate through large images, or image collections, using the Apple iPhone's touch-screen interface.
"Want to see giga-pixel images on your iPhone? Now you can -- with Seadragon Mobile," a company blogger wrote in a Saturday post on Microsoft's Live Labs site. "Seadragon Mobile brings the same smooth image browsing you get on the PC to the mobile platform."
According to the blog, Seadragon Mobile lets users scroll through, and zoom in on, maps or photos "with just a few pinches or taps of your finger." The app is specifically designed to enable navigation through large images built using Microsoft's Photosynth technology. Photosynth lets users stitch together separate images into a continuous whole to create panoramic pictures.
Even some Microsoft employees are wondering why the company didn't first release Seadragon Mobile for Windows Mobile. "It's terrific to see this innovation coming out, but I have to ask myself where is the Windows Mobile version?" wrote Steve Clayton, a Microsoft technology manager who works on software and services projects, in his own Saturday blog post.
Where indeed, Microsoft?