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Microsoft's Big Week: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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Let's talk about Microsoft - after all, they've had a pretty big week. Tech bloggers everywhere have to come together to agree on one thing:

Microsoft definitely announced stuff.

Beyond that, opinions are largely divided. The Surface is great! The Surface is an iPad ripoff! Windows Phone 8 is great! Nokia users got screwed!

So I figured I'd throw my hat in the ring. As a disclaimer, I am coming from the perspective of someone who:

  1. Has never owned a Windows 7 phone, though I've played with a friend's and flirted with the idea of getting a Lumia 900 when it came out.
  2. Has an Android phone, an iPad, a MacBook Air, and a Windows 7 desktop (at home and at work)
  3. Has just upgraded my phone and tablet, so I'm not interested in upgrading my phone or tablet for at least the next couple years - but I am following the mobile world closely to see how things play out, particularly with the move toward laptop/tablet convergence. Depending on how things go, I am open to changing any and all of my current platfroms
  4. Wants everyone to succeed, because regardless of your personal preferences, competition is good for everyone

So, let's start with the good - and don't mistake the relatively small size of the "good" section as a reflection of my overall opinion of what Microsoft showed this week - I think they stuff that was good was really, really good.

The Good

"Microsoft finally seemed to understand how much it improves the user experience if a company controls both the hardware and the software."

The Surface is an impressive looking piece of hardware. Microsoft, for the first time in two years, fired a clear shot across the bow of the iPad, and simultaneously put all Android tablet makers on notice. They took a big step forward toward laptop/tablet convergence - which was fairly predictable given the nature of Windows 8 - but in clever ways people likely didn't expect, with a built-in kickstand and a Smart Cover/keyboard hybrid. Beyond that, Microsoft finally seemed to understand how much it improves the user experience if a company controls both the hardware and the software.

Windows Phone 8 was a much-needed shot in the arm for Windows Phone, finally bringing a cohesive ecosystem to the mobile Windows world, such that developers can easily target apps for both their tablet and phone OS, in the same way they already can for iOS and Android - with the added benefit of Windows RT arguably being a more powerful operating system. Though Microsoft was in some ways still left playing catch-up with their new features (especially with things like multitasking), they genuinely - and appropriately - seemed excited about the future of Windows Phone. In other ways, Windows 8 Phone actually leap-frogged their competition, especially with regard to things like Direct X and Skype/VOIP integration. Personally, I've always had a soft-spot for Live Tiles, as I think they're an ideal mash-up between static app icons and information-providing widgets - so I think the expansion of the Windows 8 start screen was also a pretty big deal. Overall, I found very little - if anything - in WP8 to complain about.

The Bad

"Microsoft gave us tech blue balls - they got people rightfully excited about their product, but by the end they refused to tell people when they could buy it or how much they could buy it for."

For someone bringing a lot of "good" to the table in a single week, Microsoft still doesn't seem to know entirely how to present it. Their announcement of the Surface tablets was largely reminiscent of major Apple announcements, but I believe it was missing the most important aspects. While there's no doubt that Steve Jobs was a fantastic salesman, I think what really wins people over during Apple's announcements is the fact that the product being announced almost always:

  1. Has a price tag
  2. Is available for almost-immediate purchase, or at least pre-order

I don't think the importance of those two things can be overstated. It's one thing to announce a great product; it's another to announce a great product and tell people when they can get it and how much they'll have to pay for it. Honestly, if you can't tell your customers those things, why are you even having a special announcement?

Showing a product at an expo like CES is one thing - it's a venue designed to show off new technology, some of which may never even make it to market. On the other hand, if you hold a special last-minute event, you have to bring something more to the table than "It will be out at the same time as the OS (which still has no release date) and will be priced competitively" - that just doesn't cut it. Microsoft gave us tech blue balls - they got people rightfully excited about their product, but by the end they refused to tell people when they could buy it or how much they could buy it for. So why even bother holding the event? Perhaps it was to get the fires going under their OEMs before the release of Windows 8 and Windows RT, but it still seems like a wasted opportunity - and since Microsoft is undeniably behind in the tablet races, and they can't afford to waste opportunities like that.

Speaking of the OEMs...it will be interesting to see how they respond to the fact that Microsoft is now directly competing with them, especially since they have to pay Microsoft a non-trivial fee to create Windows RT and Windows 8 devices...a fee that Microsoft will obviously not have to pay themselves. It's hard to imagine they're thrilled over the prospect of paying to compete with Microsoft, particularly when Android continues to be free for their use.

The Ugly

"There is no question that the Lumia 900 is the current flagship of WP7, yet it's already been torpedoed by its own side just as it was leaving port. To be frank, it deserved better."

I don't think it's possible to discuss Microsoft's announcements this week without mentioning the impending end-of-life of Windows Phone 7. The reasons they're doing it make perfect technical sense and perfect business sense, but that doesn't change the fact that the timing is horrible. Two and a half months ago, WP7 had what was essentially a re-launch of the platform with the Lumia 900. It was Microsoft and Nokia's big push after almost a year and a half of other handset makers essentially recycling their Android hardware and putting WP7 on it - we were finally getting quality hardware that was meant for WP7. "The smartphone beta test" was over, we were told.

Flash forward to yesterday, when customers were basically told there was no use in buying a phone running WP7, because it was being EOL'd as-of that moment. Keep in mind that the Lumia 900 isn't even 3 months old and it's already running a deprecated operating system. This is even worse than Android - an OS that's already notorious for a sub-par updating strategy. If you buy a flagship Android phone today, there is a very high chance it will be updated to at least the next version of Android. There is no question that the Lumia 900 is the current flagship of WP7, yet it's already been torpedoed by its own side just as it was leaving port. To be frank, it deserved better.

Yes, there is going to be a stop-gap in the form of WP7.8, but this is a token gesture at best. People comparing it to the feature-"fragmentation" of iOS are, I think, missing the point. To be clear, I am not pleased with some of the choices Apple has made with iOS6. I don't think there's any reason the iPhone 4 shouldn't be getting turn-by-turn navigation, for example. However, at least developers will have the freedom to write apps with new iOS6 API's that will run properly on the iPhone 4 and, yes, even the iPhone 3GS. This is the major - and important - distinction between WP7.8 and WP8. If a developer uses any WP8 API's or features, that app simply won't run on WP7.8. Period. WP7.8 is little more than a re-skinning of WP7.5 to make it look similar to WP8 - under the hood, everything is different. Even customers who would not typically care about having the latest software might be caught off-guard when their friend is running new apps that they can't - especially if those new apps include things like Words With Friends. Despite all the talk about the smartphone beta test being over, WP7 now looks in many ways like it was a beta - a placeholder between the legacy Windows CE kernel and the shiny new Windows 8 kernel.

Obviously one could make the argument that you buy the product as-is, not the product you want it to become, and there's some merit to that. However, I think Apple and even to a lesser extent Google have shown that that rule doesn't apply to the smartphone world. A large majority of smartphone owners get their phones subsidized with a two-year contract, and as such we've come to expect regular updates during that two-year period, since the option of buying a newer device is simply too expensive when you consider early-upgrade costs. I think Microsoft will get away with making this mistake once, if only because the number of impacted people is so small, but if WP8 takes off like they hope it will, they can't afford to do so again.

The Lumia 900 is, I think, an unfortunate victim of Microsoft moving in the right direction. The only solution I can think of would've been simply to not release the Nokia flagship until Windows Phone 8 was ready, but I'm honestly not sure Nokia as a company could afford that long of a wait without being bought by Microsoft. The sad truth, though, is that there simply aren't enough WP7 users - and specifically Lumia 900 owners - for this decision to negatively impact. Even if every single Lumia owner refused to ever buy another Windows Phone, I think it's unlikely it would impact Microsoft's bottom line. In was in many ways a terrible decision, but it might have also been the only one Microsoft could make - though I don't think that completely excuses it.

The Bottom Line

"The unification of Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows 8 Phone is a really, really big deal."

I would summarize Microsoft's big week by saying that they did a lot of things right, but presented it at all wrong. Their major push about unity was, ironically, fragmented between two separate announcements, each of which had their own distinct but notable issues. It feels like Microsoft is heading the right direction, but isn't properly explaining to customers what that direction is and why it is, in fact, the right one. Don't get me wrong - there is a lot of good to talk about, even if my "Bad" and "Ugly" sections were substantially longer than my "Good" section.

The unification of Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows 8 Phone is a really, really big deal. Microsoft's put the pieces in play such that someone's desktop, tablet/laptop, and smartphone could all conceivably be running the same basic operating system, and they're now suddenly in a position to create a cohesive ecosystem that could even rival Apple's - but they're doing a terrible job of explaining that to potential customers. Apple has shown just how valuable that unified ecosystem is - all of their products work together amazingly well, to the point where customers are actually afraid to leave the comfort of that ecosystem. Microsoft already has a large percentage of users who are running Windows on their desktop or laptop, and they have to leverage that in the mobile world.

Obviously, I have no experience running a large company myself, but as a consumer and gadget nerd, I can at least say what would've/still can blown me away:

  1. Hold off on the Surface announcement until Windows RT was ready to go. Announce a price, release date, and specific hardware specs - most important being battery life.
  2. Push out Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 on the same day. Have a whole line-up of top-of-the-line Windows Phone 8 devices ready to go out the door the same day as the Surface. Ideally, have OEMs with devices ready to go out that day, too. Nothing says "unity" and "ecosystem" like a family of devices running the same basic operating system, released on the same day. As far as I know, it would be an unprecedented move in the tech industry - and Microsoft basically has one chance to do it.
  3. Announce AirPlay-style streaming and mirroring from all Windows 8 devices to XBox 360's - a natural extension of Smartglass that would turn the 360 into an overnight competitor with the Apple TV - a competitor with a much bigger userbase than Apple TV.

Apple's biggest strengths are hardware/software unity and their ecosystem, and Microsoft showed with the Surface that they learned the first part, but apparently they still have a ways to go before they figure out the true value of the second part. I don't think anyone wants Microsoft to become Apple, but there are definitely valuable lessons for Microsoft to learn from them, without losing their own identity.