Between a hard rock and a Windows Phone: Microsoft’s Dilemma

Keep in mind this was written back at the beginning of May, so keep that in mind. Would love to know how you feel. Thank you

Microsoft has a long history of never being able to get something right the first time around (see Windows 7 after Windows Vista, Xbox 360 after the original Xbox and Internet Explorer 9 after 8, 7 and most of all IE 6). Time has shown that Microsoft can use their deep pockets to stay in a market until they eventually become the dominant player. It was only a little over two years ago that Microsoft decided to drop making more iterations of Windows Mobile 6.X and transition into something completely new and built from the ground up. This effort would later become known as Windows Phone 7. Windows Phone would be a clean break for Microsoft and would be a break from the dominantly icon based OS’s like iOS and to some extent Android. While Microsoft has been trying to make a come back, they are in currently what I would consider to be a holding pattern. They are up against the clock to act and time, in my opinion, is of the essence. Here are some of the issues I think are at the heart of this problem.

1. The Windows Phone Drought

It’s currently the beginning of May, and Windows Phone is currently in a holding pattern. The latest (within the last five months) Windows Phones to be released have been the Nokia Lumia 710 on T-Mobile, the HTC TITAN II and Nokia Lumia 900 both on AT&T. When Windows Phone launched back in fall of 2010, Microsoft had several committed OEM’s on board with a selection of launch devices from Dell, LG, Samsung and HTC. They were the only OEM’s at the time and Microsoft was committed to offering a choice of devices with a consistent experience. Think of it as a middle ground between locked down iOS and wild west Android. The initial launch of Windows Phone was missing many things that competing OS’s had. Things like lack of multi-tasking, background tasks, and copy and paste support. Many lambasted Windows Phone for not having these things but this issue was remedied to some extent with “NoDo” and completely with “Mango”, Windows Phone last major revision. The lack of Windows Phones at this moment in my opinion is a huge issue. Verizon and Sprint in the US still have their original launch Windows Phone devices and didn’t get on board to receive second gen devices. T-Mobile was fortunate enough to get two second gen devices in the form of the HTC Radar and the Nokia Lumia 710. AT&T on the other hand has gotten the majority of Windows Phone, staying true to being the premier carrier for Windows Phone.

At this point with Windows Phone 8 on the horizon, presumably coming this fall, OEM’s are waiting on the capabilities that this update will enable. HTC has gone on record saying that they are waiting on Windows Phone 8 to put out new phones. Samsung is in that same boat in regards to waiting for Windows Phone 8 to make moves. In contrast Dell, one of the original OEM’s for Windows Phone removed themselves completely from the smartphone market and LG has decided to focus on making Android devices. The game plan becomes waiting the next 4-6 months for a major update to enable additional functionality, or buy a device now and not know whether it will receive an update. To that end Microsoft has not come out to say whether current Windows Phones, 2nd and 1st gen devices, will get Apollo.

2. The Update Bottleneck

Updates, Updates, Updates. Updates are good and why would you buy something without some guarantee of updates that contain bug fixes and sometimes additional functionality. As stated in the paragraph above, Microsoft has not gone on record saying whether current phones will be upgradable to Apollo. This would seem to be a very easy thing to answer and alleviate the doubt in people’s minds. People who are tech savvy are the only ones who care about this while the average consumer may not even know whether or not their phone has updates available at all. Looking at iOS for a minute, not every iOS device out there is running iOS 5. Many iOS devices are still running iOS 4.X and it wasn’t until iOS 5 that updates could be had over the air. Microsoft has gone on record as criticizing Android for their lack of updates and convoluted updates scheduled. Microsoft did a very admirable job rolling out the Mango update to the masses with 95% of Windows Phone owners having had the update with 3-4 weeks. While the jury is out on whether Windows Phone 8 will come to Windows Phone 7.5 devices, another issue is whether Windows Phone 7.5 “Refresh” will come to current devices. Windows Phone 7.5 “Refresh” is better known as “Tango” and is the interim update before Apollo just as “NoDo” was to “Mango”. Tango is meant to be a major update but does have some functionality that is still welcome. Tango adds the ability to attach multiple photos and voice memos in SMS messages, adds a location aware icon when services on the phone are using GPS, and adds the ability to support devices with only 256 MB of RAM.

Apple took the steps a long time ago to remove mobile operators from the mix in regards to updates. Android hasn’t been able to do that, with many updates being at the mercy of the mobile operators or OEM’s simply not putting them at all. Windows Phone is starting to have some issues with certain phones not getting the latest OS available. With Tango not being available on any phones except Nokia’s Lumia 610, it isn’t hard to image why many people might be in doubt. I’m not saying that Tango wont be rolled out to current phones, but with Apollo on the horizon, mobile operators might not see the point in rolling it out. This is still assuming that Apollo is able to rolled out to current devices.

3. The Moving Target

While Microsoft is trying to get their affairs in order, it isn’t like Apple and Google are sitting around. With Apollo looking at a fall launch, you have to consider what else will be out come fall of this year. By fall, iOS 6 will have been released and Android Jellybean will have been announced and possibly out for people to start messing with. Both of these software developments will most certainly come with new software functionality, new API’s and UI refinements. We still have no idea whether Windows Phone 8 will add more customization options for the Metro UI. Microsoft has played the game of catch up for quite a while and while Windows Phone 8 will address many off the features people have been clamoring for, we have no idea about what Apple and Google have planned for their respective mobile Operating Systems. At some point iOS, Android and Windows Phone will have the same functionality, it’s a matter of how you go about accessing it. iOS’s claim to fame has always been a consistent experience and a mature app catalog. Android’s has always been the integration of Google services in combination with the ability to customize the interface till your hearts content. Windows Phones approach was to have an integrated experience. This philosophy being that you don’t need an app for everything (opposite Apple’s philosophy). With live tiles you don’t need to dive into apps to get information, you can just look at the tiles to get your information. While I don’t expect Apple and Google to stand still in regards to their OS’es, I expect Microsoft to get behind iterating and improving on Windows Phone regularly.

4. Loose Ends

With everything that Microsoft has going for them, there are things that I feel Microsoft should really get behind:

  • Advertising

This is such a big thing and its something that I feel isn’t being gone about the right way. Advertising can make or break a product but there isn’t any real advertising direction out of Microsoft. Their initial bout of advertisements focused on not showing off phone features or what the phone could do. Even worse than that they weren’t seen on TV that much. Nokia has done a much better job advertising their Lumia line than Microsoft or other OEM’s have done doing the same. They need to flood every possible media channel. They need advertisements on TV, Radio, Billboards and they need to work with mobile operators to get prominence inside stores.

  • Knowledge

For as long as Windows Phone has been out and around, many people still have no idea what it is. The public at large still believes that it is old, defunct Windows Mobile that doesn’t exist anymore. Microsoft decided to stick with the Windows brand probably out of familiarity so they need to train everybody that Windows Phone ≠ Windows Mobile. It doesn’t help that information and internal company memos refer to Windows Phone as Windows Mobile.

  • Diversity

As stated before, in the US AT&T is getting all the Windows Phone love and other carriers are being left out in the cold. While T-Mobile is better off than Sprint and Verizon in regards to phones, the situation isn’t that much better. Nokia has always been known for cheap and low-end phones and with the Nokia Lumia 610 as an example, Nokia could take very good advantage. The plan should get Windows Phone winning the war on Pre-paid carriers like Cricket, Metro PCS and Boost Mobile in the US. Currently Android (low-end Android) dominates those markets and low-end Android phones don’t perform very well. With Windows Phones single core performance, Lumia’s could single-handedly take over that marketshare, furthering Windows Phone in the eyes of the public. More Windows Phones on more carriers would also help as well.

Microsoft isn’t in a completely bad position in regards to the phone market. They just can’t afford to sit around and not do anything. With Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 launching in the fall, Windows 8 will help further along the Metro UI which is dominant on Windows Phone. Hopefully Microsoft is able to play their cards right, because Google and Apple are on the move, and wont be standing still.