Richard Waters For Microsoft innovation, look to emerging markets

“Good enough” used to be Microsoft’s mantra: why pay more for corporate IT when Windows on the server works well enough in most situations?

That same argument has been turned against it by a succession of rivals, from Linux to Google Apps. These and many others have exposed Microsoft’s feature-creep and often left it defending the higher-cost option (and led it to look to defensive alliances like one with Nokia – see note below).

In emerging markets, though, Microsoft has less of an entrenched business to defend and is freer to innovate. Take today’s news from Redmond, of a Java-like environment with the potential to turn hundreds of millions of standard mobile phones into simple internet-connected devices.

Known as OneApp, the new Microsoft software runs on “feature phones”. With very limited memory and processing power, these devices usually run a few Java-enabled games but little else. The cost and hassle of porting an app to myriad different handsets also restricts their usefulness.

As a platform to support a wider range of applications, OneApp is meant to get around both these hindrances. The download is only 150 kilobytes, and the software taps into resources in the cloud to make the experience of using apps as streamlined as possible, according to Armit Mital, head of what Microsoft calls its “unlimited potential group”. It will also make it possible for an app designed for one phone to run on some 70-80 per cent of all feature phone models, Mr Mital promises.

As the first demonstration of this, Microsoft has teamed up with South African operator Blue Label Telecoms, which will use it to support a number of consumer apps that include a mobile wallet, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Windows Live Messenger (Microsoft itself built all the social media apps as a demonstration of the potential).

OneApp relies on standard Web development technologies like Javascript and XML – there’s no tie-in to the .Net framework. All very un-Microsoft.

So how does Microsoft expect to make money out of this? The company won’t say yet whether it plans to charge for the software, but it seems far more likely that Microsoft sees this as a way to draw traffic to its services. For instance, what if OneApp came preinstalled with a link to Bing?

If this idea works in the emerging world, why shouldn’t it also work in developed markets? As a “good enough” lightweight app platform for feature phones, it might eat into some of the potential of the booming smartphone business. But then again, as Windows Mobile falls further behind in that market, Microsoft may eventually feel that it no longer has much to lose.