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Microsoft Should Bet On Web Apps

As the mobile environment becomes more fragmented, developers will be tempted to focus their efforts on the platforms with large market share. Microsoft needs a way to attract those developers.
An open-source app named Phonegap helps to make Web apps based on HTML and Javascript look and feel a lot more like native apps. Instead of running the HTML/Javascript in a browser, Phonegap hosts its own embedded browser using the platform's native browser engine. For most user interface work, the Web app simply modifies the page using standard HTML and Javascript code. When the app needs to access platform functionality that it normally couldn't in a browser, it simply calls a Phonegap interface. The Phonegap "application" can have an icon and launch just like a native application, so to most users a well-written Web app will be nearly indistinguishable from a native app.

Microsoft pioneered the concept of an embeddable browser, and Windows desktop applications have been able to use the HTML/Javascript engines in the form of the WebBrowser Control for more than a decade. Now, Microsoft needs to take this technology to its mobile platform and push it hard. That way, developers don't need to go out of their way to support Microsoft. They can get it by just writing an app that will work on all platforms, including Windows Phone.

To execute on this strategy, Microsoft should do one thing as soon as possible: deliver Internet Explorer 9 to Windows Phone. Most of the other mobile platforms, including Apple's iPhone, Google's Android, and RIM's BlackBerry are already shipping a standards-compliant browser. Even better for developers, they are all variants of WebKit so they have very similar behavior. That makes Windows Phone the odd man out.

Microsoft has been showing IE9 at various trade shows, and says it will ship with the update code-named "Mango." The question is, when will Mango ship? In February, Steve Ballmer said it would ship in 2011. Now, however, sources are saying that it may not ship this year.

The current Windows Phone browser is based on the ancient Internet Explorer 7, and it doesn't offer very good performance or compliance with standards. In fact, it does not support modern standards like HTML5 or CSS3 at all. As a result, Windows Phone is at a disadvantage when it comes to Web-based applications. But Internet Explorer 9 has just shipped for the desktop. If Microsoft can just get it to their mobile platform they'll achieve parity with the market leaders in this race, and offer developers an attractive way to offer Windows Phone support.