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With RIM Deal, Microsoft Creates the Bad News Bears of the Mobile Market

Somebody go tell Steve Ballmer that Palm is off the table before Microsoft tries to partner with the washed-up mobile pioneer that's now part of HP.

Apparently, Microsoft is in full Morris Buttermaker mode, putting together a rag-tag group of cast-offs to take on the mighty leaders of the mobile world. Of course, you know who Morris Buttermaker was. He was Walter Matthau's character in The Bad News Bears, perhaps the greatest team-sport underdog movie of all time -- which, incidentally, came out the same year as Rocky, the greatest sports underdog movie of all time.

That year was 1976, and not to give away 35-year-old movie plots (spoiler alert!) but both the Bears and Rocky lose (gloriously, of course) at the ends of their respective tales. What does that tell us about the America of the 1970s? If we were in a college class, your editor would be assigning an essay right now. (Instead, he's writing one. Is it too late to get that PhD?) And please do not insult us by mentioning the alleged 2005 remake of The Bad News Bears, which, as far as we're concerned, never happened. It never happened.

This week, Microsoft, a mobile has-been that might lack Buttermaker's gruff charm but certainly carries his washed-up status, continued putting together the Bad News Bears of the mobile industry. First (a while back), relic Nokia -- "Finnish" in more ways than one, some might say -- now led by old buddy Stephen Elop, came on board. Then, on Tuesday, Microsoft added Research in Motion -- RIM, the maker of the BlackBerry -- to its lineup. Microsoft's Bing search engine (see, we really are talking about losers here) will be the default search and maps provider for BlackBerry phones and other RIM devices, just in case anybody actually buys one of them in the future.

Now, to be fair, not everybody thinks that RIM is Bears material, but it's certainly showing signs of wear, and at least a few observers figure that the one-time high-flyer is headed for the scrapheap of technology history. With Apple and Google -- who together sort of form the Yankees, the Bears' bitter but far superior rival -- slashing and burning everything in their mobile paths, Microsoft's motley collection of mobile partners is starting to look distinctly early-2000s. And that's just kind of embarrassing (and certainly not appealing), no matter what RIM and Nokia might actually have to offer.

Now, in The Bad News Bears, the Yankees are over-competitive, abrasive and wildly successful super-jerks, which sounds about right as a metaphor for Apple and maybe even for Google as well -- but especially for Apple. The Bears, on the other hand, are charming misfits, with the cute but conflicted Amanda Whurlitzer, the rogue Kelly Leak and the rotund Engelberg rounding out a cast of fairly loveable characters.

There, of course, is where the similarities between Microsoft's gang and the Bears end. There's not much charming or loveable about Microsoft, Nokia and RIM. There's not a lot of underdog spirit there. In fact, if anything, Team Microsoft Mobile's spirit seems pretty broken, and Microsoft's efforts to reclaim relevance in the mobile market smack of desperation. The Bad News Bears was a great idea for a movie in the down-and-out '70s, but it's probably going to make for a pretty weak mobile partnership in the 2010s.

Plus, The Bad News Bears was fiction, and Microsoft's mobile plight is sad reality. The company, once a leader in the field, bumbled its way to near extinction and is now just trying to rise from laughing stock to third-place also-ran, something it might be able to do on the strength of what does look like a decent platform in Windows Phone 7. But highly publicized hookups with the likes of RIM and Nokia aren't helping the laughing-stock part very much -- and let's not even get into the whole tablet situation. There was a time when Microsoft could crush its competition almost at will in almost any space, but the Yankees of yesterday have become the Bad News Bears of today. It's almost as sad as watching Willie Mays try to play for the Mets (or so we've heard).

Morris Buttermaker nearly turned his team into champions; we're guessing Steve Ballmer won't have nearly as much success. The question now is: Which has-been will Microsoft reach out to in the mobile space next? Does Chico's Bail Bonds produce mobile devices or make a mobile OS? If so, expect an announcement soon.

What's your take on the future of RIM and of Microsoft in the mobile space? Send it to lpender@rcpmag.com. And thanks to RCP Executive Editor Jeff Schwartz for digging up a couple of the links we used in this entry.

Posted by Lee Pender on May 03, 2011 at 11:57 AM