Wired Epicenter recently published an article on Windows Phone titled ‘Is Windows Phone’s Consumer Focus Killing It?‘. It’s certainly reasonable to propose that the consumer focus is a reason for Windows Phone’s less than spectacular adoption, but to say that Microsoft’s will to satisfy the end consumers to the highest degree possible will be a prominent cause in the platform’s possible demise is pushing it much too far.
That’s obviously not to plainly suggest that Microsoft taking a very Apple-like approach with smartphones isn’t holding them back even slightly. It’s a large reason for Windows Phone’s general lack of awareness amongst phone shoppers, and the obvious lack of sparkle in Microsoft’s Windows Phone lineup. Unlike Google with its Android operating system, Microsoft places strict hardware guidelines on manufacturers developing Windows Phones. OEMs are not permitted to have a screen resolution that is beyond or below 800 X 480 and processor requirements remain particularly strict and unmoving.
Microsoft remains strict on software customisation even more so than the company is on hardware requirements, permitting only extremely minor additions to the OS like HTC Hub and certain proprietary HTC apps on HTC Windows Phone handsets. Given this, the Windows Phone landscape is fairly static and stale, removed from the glory and the glamour of the nerd fulfilling spec wars in Android land breeding monsters with 3D capabilities, dangerously speedy processors, engulfing display sizes and eye bursting pixel densities.
Windows Phone sits on the hum drum side seat with an uninspiring collection of handsets built by manufacturers who simply aren’t permitted to throw their very best eggs into the Windows Phone basket. And since product design communicates the very essence of said product, manufacturers haven’t given their best shot at that either, with the most daring, slimmest and marvellous hardware designs saved for the maxed out Android handsets with differentiating specifications and OS customisations.
But this is Microsoft’s only genuine issue with Windows Phone, although a fairly large one – the manufacturers, sales channels and the carriers aren’t willing to invest heavy in developing and selling Windows Phone handsets because Microsoft’s restrictions aren’t permitting the carriers and manufacturers from any meaningful differentiation. Thus any marketing investment would reap smaller returns for both carriers and manufacturers given there’s a competitors’ Windows Phone next door that’s virtually the same.
Microsoft seems to be trying to combine both Apple and Google’s strategy, borrowing the idea of a core, uniform and optimal user experience from Apple, whilst trying to get the same reach that Google is enjoying with Android. There’s certainly the question of whether its possible to bring in the best of both worlds since the world by its very nature is full of trade offs. But I think with a little tweaking Microsoft have what it takes to make Windows Phone happen in a big way.
But, throwing aside Windows Phone’s issues (or issue), there’s a heck of a lot to be excited about, a heck of a lot for Microsoft to be excited about, and a heck of a lot of reasons to disregard sensationalist articles on Windows Phone’s seeming imminent death, and to swim against the tide of general Windows Phone negativity.
Wired’s aforementioned article noted a few really great things about Windows Phone, the fact that Windows Phone Mango has been well received by both reviewers and users alike meaning that it is objectively a really good operating system. The most crucial of Windows Phone’s accolades though is that according to Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, of the top 20 best rated cell phones on its site, 6 of them were Windows Phones and more importantly, the top 3 were all Windows Phone handsets.
This kind of customer satisfaction is something that Android has yet to achieve from even its greatest handsets, and although customer satisfaction for the iPhone is also presumably sky-high, it’s only one phone. Microsoft has managed to achieve satisfaction across a vast number of handsets, meaning that its ideals for reach in conjunction with a uniformly great experience devoid of fragmentation is indeed paying off.
What’s important for Microsoft now isn’t the fact that people are buying their phones in large numbers or not, but whether the ones who are buying are happy because these people are the ones who will enrich Microsoft’s Windows Phone ecosystem along with Microsoft’s greater ecosystem encompassing Xbox, Windows, Zune and others, and these are also the people who will keep coming back.
Microsoft is at an advantage here against Google because the team at Redmond have the security of knowing that their consumers enjoy Windows Phone for exactly what it is with its coloured tiles, swift transitions and minimalist outfit. On the flip side, it’s a fair point to say that consumers can’t ever really love Android because Android is only really Android in its pure form on a Nexus phone, a Google phone without the UI customisations and additions. You could say you love Android on a Samsung Galaxy S II, but then when you get a hold of an HTC handset in its Sense UI glory you could suddenly hate Android and its superfluous interface design.
Like an intelligent Wired Epicenter article stated – there’s no more Android, there’s only Android compatible. So the loyalty factor plays a role here, its much easier and more effective for Microsoft to invoke consumer loyalty with Windows Phone than it is for Google with Android.
Though both companies, with their extensive web and product reach, can play the ecosystem card as effectively as each other.
Still, having happy customers doesn’t change or cut loose the major flaw in Microsoft’s strategy which makes it really difficult for manufacturers to strike a home run and deliver Windows Phone in an incarnation capable of competing with the best of Android in an all out spec war. And not just plain processor specs, but display size, pixel density and even physical hardware design. In these respects, Windows Phone is yet to deliver. It’s a matter of marketing too, which is essentially the meeting point of all of Microsoft’s issue.
If OEMs can’t develop big and have a market-leading product, then why throw a huge party about it? Especially, especially if said OEM has an Android handset that is actually worth celebrating.
Nokia was meant to try and fix this. By being an exclusive Windows Phone partner they’d have nothing else to bother marketing, even if they did have a genuinely horrid product (which they don’t, of course). This plan has managed to see some fruits with an extensive marketing push in Europe, though sales numbers haven’t quite gone hand in hand according to most sources. But, without release in the US and Australia among other countries, its far too superficial to foretell Windows Phones’ future with sales figures from a single continent.
The whole Nokia partnership does pose problems for Microsoft’s remaining manufacturers whom don’t have an exclusive deal and many of the privileges Nokia has received from Microsoft. Since Nokia clearly have no choice but to throw all their best eggs into the Windows Phone basket, this leaves OEMs like Samsung and HTC in an even worse position knowing that there will most likely always be a Nokia Windows Phone better than theirs. Therefore, there is even less incentive to put any effort into building a half decent Windows Phone handset.
This leaves Microsoft in the likely scenario that Nokia will continue to build the high end, flagship phones whilst leaving remaining manufacturers to pick up the low end market for the budget concious consumers. This isn’t a bad scenario at all, not at all. At least not from Microsoft’s vantage.
Clearly, Microsoft has enormous hurdles with Windows Phone, but bloggers claiming that Windows Phone may very well cease to live is too far a jump to an unlikely conclusion. Despite all its problems, Windows Phone has succeeded in being a really great operating system that has immensely satisfied its user base. As a corporation, I assume there wouldn’t be too much higher on your wish list than that very sentence. Even then, it’s short sighted to call Microsoft out when all the cards haven’t yet been played.
The Microsoft-Nokia deal is really just getting started, and for the most part, hasn’t even begun. Integration with Microsoft’s popular software and services will only continue to get deeper and deeper and most importantly, what Microsoft does with their Skype acquisition could be the impetus for a fast turn around. The launch of Windows 8 will only do good things to promote Microsoft’s Metro style interface, the shining light of Windows Phone. And as still the most powerful computing company, Windows 8 will sure garner the hype, the excitement and the splash that Windows Phone never did.
I’m not saying Windows Phone will be a definite, unmitigated success, I’m just saying give it a chance. Microsoft is full of surprises and unlikely success stories, just look at the Xbox and how they slayed a monster.
Image above: by Diego Torres Silvestre/Flickr (Creative Commons)