Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and Palm’s webOS remain afterthoughts in a white-hot space that is increasingly dominated by Apple, Google, Nokia and Research In Motion. But both of the als0-rans are hoping to boost their presence in a big way in 2010, and they’re looking to mobile games to help.
Microsoft’s future in the space seems to hinge on Windows Mobile 7, which appears to be a much more consumer-focused version of the venerable OS than previous iterations. The new platform will feature premium mobile services including a Zune video store and music offerings, according to Jefferies & Company predictions, and is likely to feature social networking apps such as Facebook and Twitter. Microsoft will also integrate Xbox Live with the new OS, according to reports, and it may even come in two flavors — one for consumers looking to play games and use other mobile entertainment offerings, and another for the business users who are WinMo’s bread and butter.
Palm has been less circumspect about its intentions to leverage mobile gaming with its webOS. The manufacturer has been wooing EA Mobile and Gameloft and will release a plug-in development kit designed to help developers port games written in C or C++ to webOS. And Palm is taking its case directly to game makers at March’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which is to the gaming community what this is to Trekkies.
Both Palm and Microsoft are hoping to build on the mobile-gaming momentum created by the iPhone and Apple’s App Store, which have given the space a much-needed boost. While feature-phone gaming remains shackled by overpriced titles and overcrowded carrier decks, the iPhone — and subsequent smartphones — have seen game downloads surge thanks largely to new, consumer-friendly distribution systems teeming with bargain-basement (or free) games.
Those new distribution channels have largely eliminated the edge traditional game publishers once enjoyed in mobile by minimizing (or eliminating) porting costs and by taking the role of gatekeeper out of the carriers’ hands. Developers of iPhone games, for instance, must build only one version of a title and can throw it on the App Store’s shelves for the $99 certification fee. The result has been a flood of pick-up-and-play casual titles that help kill time while a user waits at the doctor’s office or commutes on the subway. And consumers have responded in a big way.
Palm and Microsoft seem focused on the other end of the spectrum, though; one that more closely mirrors hard core console and online games. Palm is embracing a host of new console-style titles that emphasize 3-D graphics and are produced by traditional publishers. Microsoft is taking a similar tack by integrating Windows Mobile with Xbox, which features sophisticated offerings such as in-game chat, multiplayer functionality and streaming media.
Taking those kinds of features mobile could provide another substantial boost to mobile gaming, which still centers on casual time-killing titles. They could pave the way for a series of new devices better suited for “twitch” gaming, featuring larger screens and more sophisticated controls than mainstream handsets can offer. And they could throw open the door for the traditional game publishers and the kind of licensed, big-budget games that have generated billions on other platforms.