Microsoft's Windows Phone 7: Too Little Too Late, Or Just Maybe A Resurrection Candidate
After months’ worth of staged promotion and speculation, which began with Microsoft’s announcement at the mid-February Mobile World Congress conference, the company is set to roll out the latest version of its Windows CE-based Windows Mobile operating system for cellphones and other mobile electronics devices next Monday morning, subsequent to the code going RTM a bit more than a month ago. I’ve been closely following the evolving Windows Phone 7 situation all year (some of you may recall my previous writeup on it, back in mid-April), for both personal and professional reason. Although I haven’t toted a Windows Mobile handheld in several years, I used to be a pretty devoted user, across multiple hardware and software generations (iMate’s SP5m, followed by the T-Mobile Dash). And prior to then, I cycled through several generations’ worth of Windows CE-based PDAs; a Compaq (later HP) C140, a Compaq 3135, a Casio Cassiopeia E-125, a Compaq 3835, and finally Dell’s Axim X5 and X50V.
But the smartphone largely obsoleted the PDA, and in the process Microsoft’s once-impressive mobile electronics market segment share evaporated. There were plenty of reasons for this discouraging-to-Redmond situation, such as:
- The Windows-reminiscent UI ended up being as much of a detriment as it was an advantage, among other reasons because it hampered the incorporation of multi-touch and other interface evolutions pioneered by competitors such as Apple (which I’ll discuss in detail in my upcoming November 4 print issue’s cover story)
- Windows Mobile division resources were diverted to other projects deemed higher priority, such as Windows Vista and the Xbox 360
- What resources remained were split between Windows Mobile and the ill-fated Kin project, and
- The perpetually buggy ActiveSync protocol was Windows-only, and Microsoft was slow to embrace the cloud-based synchronization and backup alternative
The seemingly incessant operating system re-branding didn’t help much, either; take a look at this mind-numbing table as an example. And Microsoft was also slow to exploit then-unique Windows Mobile feature set advantages; multitasking, or the ability to sync a computer and a handset over not only a USB wired connection but also wirelessly over infrared, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (the latter later retracted, ironically, for security concerns), or to tether a computer to a handset acting as a wireless modem (no matter what the cellular service providers thought of such a thing).
About that multitasking…as I mentioned back in mid-April, the company didn’t provide adequate safeguards or sufficient Microsoft-centralized developer coordination and control to prevent one application from overwhelming the system’s available memory, processing and other resources, to the detriment of other concurrently running programs and the overall user experience. All of those parallel processes also put the kibosh on battery life. And users needed to obtain the applications from a diversity of developer websites and other sources (versus, for example, Apple’s online App Store); Microsoft followed a very PC-like (and, as it turns out, handset-unfriendly) distribution model here, further complicated by the fact that only belatedly did it sanction direct installer file downloads to a handset, versus historically forcing installs to be via ActiveSync and in the form of Windows EXEs.
It’s a bit ironic that this post appears one day after the part-1 print variant of an earlier blog-published piece showed up in EDN’s October 7 edition’s pages. Here are a few excerpts particularly relevant to today’s topic:
I wrote about the foundation for the trend in print back in late March 2007, with an online followup a few weeks later. To a point, consumers prefer a more feature-rich product to a lesser-featured alternative at a particular price point (or said another way, the least expensive product that provides a particular feature suite). But the inherent danger of increasing feature set richness is that increasing complexity will come along for the ride, particularly when that richness is supplied by a plethora of companies who aren’t exactly in lockstep coordination with each other. Note, for example, that the majority of BSoDs attributed to Microsoft’s O/Ss are actually the result of misbehaving third-party applications and hardware drivers. A large platform market share, especially in the corporate environment rife with secrets begging to be stolen, also tends to attract the lion’s share of folks interested in attacking the software running on that platform for nefarious purposes…So it is that an increasing number of consumers are, with Macs and in spite of lingering economic climate distress, willing to pay more for a computer that’s arguably less featured than a Windows-powered alternative, in seeking usage simplicity and relative virus immunity (at least temporarily, until Apple’s burgeoning market segment share attracts crackers’ attentions).
With iOS-based products, Jobs gets the complete platform control he has long yearned for. His company supplies the hardware. His company creates the operating system, the bulk of the apps for it, and the development tool suite that others harness. Granted, this time around Apple’s cultivated an abundant-sized developer community, thereby rectifying one of the fundamental issues that shaped the outcome of past Mac-versus-Windows wars, but all the software funnels through the Apple App Store, with both content control and fiscal benefits. Apple can reject an app proposal for no clear reason whatsoever, and it can yank an existing app from the Store under the same no-criteria; as such it can easily subsume others’ efforts into its own software any time it wants to. Apple even has complete control over the advertisements coming from other companies. And, I’d argue, a critical mass of consumers will accept all of these shenanigans with little-to-no complaint, because in exchange they to some degree receive the it-all-works-together simplicity that they’ve yearned for over countless years’ struggles with technology.
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft has done an abrupt strategy turn, continuing in the path it first blazed with the Zune portable multimedia player and associated software and service, and in a very Apple-like direction. Programs will come from a centralized, Microsoft-controlled application store (complete with Apple-reminiscent content censorship), and data will sync up to a MobileMe-like server-side portal. Multitasking will be severely curtailed in the interest of improved power consumption and a more robust user responsiveness experience. The user interface will be very non-Windows-like:
The hardware designs will be few in variety and will incorporate a scant button count, to the extent that owners of the recently introduced and Windows Mobile 6.5-based HTC HD2 won’t, to their dismay, have an (official) upgrade path. O/S upgrades will come directly from Microsoft, bypassing the carrier intermediary. Tethering capabilities have, at least for now, been discarded, as has removable memory card and user-replaceable battery support; Adobe Flash support (along with Silverlight cognizance) has also been temporarily shelved. And ironically, as I mentioned back in mid-April, today’s Windows Phone 7 matches some longstanding iPhone shortcomings which Apple just fixed in iOS v4; application-spanning cut, copy-and-paste, for example.
Can Microsoft rebound? Most industry analysts are skeptical, but call me a contrarian to the prevailing trend, for a diversity of reasons:
- Many of Microsoft’s historical competitors are also struggling. Nokia’s Symbian, as I wrote 11 months ago, is fading fast, Maemo was a non-starter, and the Intel-co-developed MeeGo is so far doing no better. Palm, like Microsoft, waited way too long to tackle a substantial O/S enhancement, and it’s not at all clear to me that the company’s acquisition by Hewlett-Packard will amount to much. And although RIM continues to have the largest smartphone market segment share installed base, its corporate-dominant growth has slowed and consumer uptake has been scant versus iOS and Google’s Android O/S.
- Google’s App Store is a ‘Wild West’ where seemingly anything goes (as long as a developer pays Google a registration fee, that is). Not surprisingly, it’s rife with insecure software that’s only belatedly pulled after its nefarious intentions are exposed. And although Apple would prefer that its service partners and end customers think otherwise, in reality it’s not in notably better stead from privacy and security standpoints. A properly locked down Microsoft O/S and application suite would, in contrast, be a tempting alternative to hardware developers, carriers and consumers alike.
- The cellular hardware and software business is rife with tug-of-war patent lawsuits right now, many indirectly aimed by operating system suppliers at other O/S suppliers’ handset partners. Just the other day, in fact, Microsoft sued Android advocate Motorola, which subsequently turned around and sued Apple. Apple and fellow Android backer HTC are back-and-forth lawsuit-volleying in the courts, Oracle is legally pursuing Google for claimed Android virtual machine infractions…need I go on? Microsoft has long offered its handset customers indemnity from lawsuits, which is an increasingly attractive proposition in such a litigious environment
- Carriers want choices (although Google’s Andy Rubin understandably wishes they’d feel otherwise). Verizon claims it’s not interested in Windows Phone 7 right now, but I suspect that’s because it’s wooing Apple on the side. AT&T already has both iOS and Android in its stable, but I’m not surprised that it’s also vigorously pursuing Windows Phone 7…just as PC manufacturers have long ’subsidized’ AMD to keep Intel off-balance, AT&T is using Microsoft to encourage some remaining semblance of Apple and Google humility. T-Mobile’s long been a Windows Mobile backer, and international carriers are following the same multi-O/S strategy.
- Synergy with the PC and wildly popular Xbox 360 is an interesting ‘hook’, though I’m still unconvinced. On the other hand, via its Zune ‘hooks’, Windows Phone 7 handsets will have access to a subscription music service option that Apple still doesn’t offer, and of whose benefits I’ve long been convinced.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Windows Phone 7 seems to be a pretty darn good market re-entry. No less a critic than popular historical Apple fanboy John Gruber (he of Daring Fireball) even recently gave it a thumbs-up. And I expect more enthusiastic critiques to come as others (dare I say, maybe even yours truly) get their paws on the new handsets.
Readers, what do you think of Microsoft’s chances with Windows Phone 7?