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Microsoft’s Last Hope Is Too Little, Too Late For Consumers and Developers

sbalmer wp7

As much of an advocate I am for competition, I can’t help but laugh on the inside when I see yet another favorable impression of Windows Phone 7. I want to say great things about it. No, I really do! But I can’t! It’s because I know that this is a failure from the start.

So before we get into detail about the competition and the hoopla surrounding Windows Phone 7, let’s start with the company that is behind all of the commotion: Microsoft.

Microsoft’s Problems

Microsoft has an identity problem. If you ask a teenager to explain what Microsoft does, you will, without question, hear them mention Windows. In fact, 93 percent of desktop computer users, as of 2007, could explain to you what Microsoft does. But that is it. Maybe some of them will mention Microsoft Office or Xbox 360, which, admittedly, have earned the attention that they have garnered, but it’s clear that most people have no idea what Microsoft is working on. The names Windows Mobile, Zune, and Kin have no meaning to them. And that’s a big problem.

Microsoft is no longer that hip, on-the-edge company that is constantly pushing out new innovations, at least in the minds of everyday consumers. Microsoft is still that old, evil company that makes Windows operating systems and forces you to jump through hoops to license a legitimate product (yeah, that’s a personal experience). It’s a poor perception to have, especially in the high-tech world we live in.

Yet there is always the opportunity to change things around, right? Microsoft can make these drastic changes to its company image to revolutionize the tech industry and get in people’s good graces! Oh. Wait. They can’t. That’s not how this company operates. Things are slow moving at Microsoft. Just look at Internet Explorer — only recently has it even become worthy of being mentioned with the likes of Firefox, Chrome, and Opera as far as features and functionality is concerned.

Does Steve Ballmer really think Windows Phone 7 is going to change this?

Windows Phone 7’s Problems

Sure, Windows Phone 7 is cool, but how does it compete with the existing phones already available in the market? There is a big difference between something cool and something revolutionary, and while Windows Phone 7 is definitely cool, it is hardly revolutionary, especially when matched up against the competition.

But there are other ways to win the hearts of the consumers. It’s simple, really: have a ton of intelligent developers (developers, developers!) on hand to create an impressive array of mind-blowing applications for the platform.

In fact, this is the most important factor in determining the success of Windows Phone 7. The third-party developers are ready to push their content to the best platform. But Microsoft hasn’t even managed to accomplish this, even with promises to reward those third-party developers. But don’t take my word for it. We now have statistics from the sources: the third-party developers. So if you can’t believe me, you better believe them, as these are the people who will ultimately determine the fate of Windows Phone 7.

wp7 devs

2,148 developers were surveyed in the Q4 Mobile Developer Report (PDF) by Appcelerator and IDC. The verdict: developers are not as interested in developing for Windows Phone 7 as they are with iOS, Android, and Blackberry. Only 28 percent of the respondents replied that they were “very interested” in developing for Windows Phone 7, as compared to iOS and Android, which, respectively, pegged 91 percent and 82 percent of the respondents as “very interested.”

If you are one to value correlations, you can analyze the graphs and notice that the less interest there is in third-party development, the less success the platform achieves. This proves that the support of third-party developers is critical to reaching any level of success in mobile.

wp7 devs over time

You need not look any further than Palm’s webOS. It was (and still is) superior to many of the other platforms that exist today. It is fast, efficient , and easy to develop for. However, the lack of third-party developers is what ultimately determined the fate of webOS, even though it is a great platform — it doesn’t matter how great the platform is, if you don’t have the backing of those third parties.

So if you take a quick glance at these numbers, it is reasonable to conclude that Microsoft has not generated enough interest to be competitive. Of course, this could always change. I’m sure there will be a spike in interest once the platform gets established on all the carriers. But by then, the reviews will have come in noting that X Twitter client is missing, Y service is not compatible, or Z functionality is not possible.

Google had this same problem, but the difference is that Google already had an established community already deeply invested in the company’s productivity, communication, and multimedia components. Switching to a Google-powered phone becomes logical at that point.

Also, I shouldn’t forget to mention the fact that phone manufacturers can’t customize Windows Phone 7 nearly as much as they can with Android — yet another blow to the platform.

Not even the most amazing user interface in the world would change this. User interfaces change all the time. Customer support and loyalty, however, takes years, if not decades, to develop. It’s a difficult situation to be in.

A Unique Perspective

However, let’s wipe the slate clean. Let’s play a game where we travel to an alternate universe where Apple, Google, and Microsoft have absolutely no presence in mobile, and all three were on the verge of releasing their new mobile products at the same time on all available carriers in the U.S. — Apple with the iPhone 4, Google with the Motorola Droid X, and Microsoft with the HTC HD 7.

Apple would attract plenty of attention because of its beautiful iOS design, while also attracting the thriving Apple fan base. Apple would also benefit from the impressive amount of content within the iTunes marketplace. People who purchase the iPhone would be buying into the Apple/iTunes ecosystem, which is a proprietary system. Those Apple loyalists are not to be taken lightly.

Google would also have a big case to make for its millions of existing customers who use their products on a daily basis. Many people rely on Google’s services for their most essential productivity and communication needs. Google also has a great rapport with the open source crowd, and people would tend to choose them as the open alternative to Apple’s relatively lock-and-key ecosystem. It also helps that Google is one of the top-rated brands throughout the world.

And Microsoft would have… well, to be honest, I don’t know. Yes, Microsoft is king of the desktop, and while I am sure that will account for a decent portion of users who would adopt the Windows Phone 7 platform, the importance of the Web and cloud services far outweighs anything Microsoft offers; people no longer care what OS they use to reach Facebook, Twitter, or their e-mail account. Microsoft would, at best, manage to attract plenty of business customers with Microsoft Exchange, but one look at Blackberry’s declining numbers would already paint a grim future.

So who wins here? I’m not sure. But I can tell you who the loser is.

However, we don’t live in this alternate universe. We now live with a situation where Apple has control of the proprietary space, Google has control of the open space, and Research In Motion has control of the business space in mobile. Where is there room for Microsoft in all of this?

A Wasted Opportunity

Microsoft had an opportunity to market Windows Phone 7 as a powerful, portable gaming device, which would have given them an opportunity to align Windows Phone 7 with its Xbox 360 community. However, it’s now an afterthought. Sure, Microsoft is now marketing Windows Phone 7 as a gaming platform, but the end result of third-parties manufacturing radically different hardware — there are 10 different phones that have been announced — will be tragic. Even Android (disclaimer: I’m an Droid X owner) has failed to impress me as a mobile gaming platform, especially when compared to the iPhone. Without control over the hardware, Microsoft can’t possibly create a stable platform for mobile gaming.

And that is really the last angle Microsoft could have played with Windows Phone 7 to differentiate it from the competition. The market is already flooded with competition that has its strengths and weaknesses. We know what those strengths and weaknesses are; we know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve touched on most of this within the article. Microsoft just hasn’t done quite enough here to impress me at all.

Ultimately, this becomes another example of Microsoft not keeping up with the times and failing to realize a distinct opportunity. Without an edge or unbelievable product that makes everyone say “wow,” there is nothing but a glimmer of hope for Windows Phone 7.

It’s a shame, too. Microsoft appears to have created a very formidable product; I will never take that away from Microsoft. And, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I am a huge fan of competition in technology. I would have loved nothing more than for Microsoft to have created a unique product that could spur on more creativity and competition in the mobile arena — unfortunately, Windows Phone 7 is not that product.

  1. Nice article with a well thought out perspective. I, respectfully disagree and have some optimism for the platform. I won’t go into detail here, but I have a few thoughts:

    *Developers – I don’t think WP7 needs a bazillion developers making fart apps for it to be successful. I also don’t think the developers will be “very interested” in a platform that can make them no money at the time of the survey. When the record setting marketing pushe by Microsoft kicks in and people actually start buying the things, the lagging developers’ interests will perk up. I have been on WimMo6.5 and the majority of apps that I’m concerned about have mostly jumped onboard. I am waiting for a couple:

    *Evernote – which I suspect might not jump onboard since OneNote is being given so much focus in WP7
    *Waze – again with Bing maps getting so much focus, I might lose my crowd-sourced mapping/GPS app

    That’s it. That’s all I’m losing, app wise and I think there are some that I’ll be gaining.

    I do think the Tiles & Hubs approach is more “revolutionary” than you give it credit for. I have watched a bunch of demo vids and I think this will alter how we interact with our phones. The integration of the local and the web/cloud is seamless.

    The hardware choices are there, but they are not “radically different hardware”. Microsoft had the forethought to lay out hardware requirements. Sure there are features like keyboards and sliding out speakers, but the OS experience should be the same across devices.

    Microsoft does have ecosystems to draw from. I am betting that the gaming crowd will be well represented with the XBox alignment. I also think the ever-connected to Facebook/Twitter crowd will give the platform a look. The integration is just too seamless and smooth to ignore.

    I wouldn’t bet either way, but I do think that Microsoft is on to something and they have the resources and motivation to get their message across way better than Palm did.

    Honestly, I was going to jump ship to Android, but I was locked into a contract with AT&T so my Evo envy had no cure. Now I’m happy to stay on AT&T and get the Samsung Focus with Windows Phone 7….sometime in November after I read some real-world reviews. I’m excited, but I’m not stupid! 🙂

  2. I have to say this article is pretty much an apple fan boy in disguise trying to put Microsoft down. I will laugh at you when Windows Phone 7 will be outselling them all. Unless Steve Jobs decides to tell anyone who owns a IOS device that he will promise them a new device that can take them to the moon.

  3. Your pronouncement of Microsoft’s pending phone failure is a little premature and very reminiscent of the Apple line of argument circa 1985. Good luck with all that and maybe the chronic problems with iPhone reception isn’t a function of ATT but that “Cool” Apple industrial design.

  4. I will have to agree with you on the fact that Windows Phone 7 will probably fail due to a small number of developers willing to build apps for the platform. I am actually quite impressed of this fact since Microsoft has MSDN, one of the biggest developer communities worldwide

  5. Microsoft may have a lot of problems, but I don’t see identity being one of them. If the teenager knows windows, I do believe he knows windows mobile as well, Zune is not even released worldwide, and it was since the beginning something that Microsoft intentionally kept disassociated from its brand. kin was canceled, only people that read about IT stuff knows that stuff anyway. Regular people have no idea of the internet explorer nightmare, thats something that only exists in IT/geeks world. I would also say that Xbox has made a lot for Microsoft in this last years,

    But anyway knowing what a company does is not a factor that will influence the sales of a product, that’s what marketing and advertising is for,

    So I would say that Microsoft has actually a nice image with its nice windows 7 and Xbox, they’re now releasing phones with a fantastic UI (which was the primary advantage, if not the only that differentiated iPhone from everything else, in my opinion still is).

    I guess it will all come down to the prices of the phones, and probably people who don’t know about apps may buy them aswell. I think they should also ditch the 10 phones, and go with a unique design, Zune hd did look cool, in the end, for a regular person, the looks of a phone is very important, those phones are just plain ordinary, that ui with a proper designed phone would be much better.

    … but they have crafted a great UI, they have lots of space for improvement, I don’t think they’ll outsell apple or gain any significant market share either, but don’t take credit of Microsoft, they’re are no longer the fat corporate guy that apple likes to make u think they are.

    Apologies for the bad english


    1. I am certainly agree with Seth, casual/common people don’t really care about Microsoft Empire or Apple, they enjoy Windows as the only Computer in the world, and Internet Explorer as Internet, seriously you can try give them OS X or delete “Internet” icon from desktop.

      We geeks, however live in entire different universe, catching up with technology everyday broader our knowledge make us forget, not everyone like us, sitting in front of computer.

      And as SavtheCoder point out, MSDN is one of the key for Microsoft.

  6. I don’t agree with this article. The UI itself is revolutionary. Microsoft did a great job with breaking away from the traditional rows of static icons seen in practically every smart-phone. As to applications, Microsoft will be releasing a version of Visual Studio specifically for developing apps for WP7. As you might already, windows developers are everywhere and almost everyone has access to a PC. You can’t say the same about Mac owners. So give the developers some time and I won’t be surprised if the amount of apps for Windows Phone 7 reaches the same amount of apps in Apple’s App Store in a couple of years.

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