Three Things Microsoft Needs To Wage a Smartphone War

Windows Phone 7 + iPhone 4 design = WP7 user fantasy

From a highly visible mobile company a decade ago to less than 8% of market share today (according to Comscore) the road to a mobile world has been bumpy for Microsoft. Back when Windows Mobile was doing well, it was largely seen as an enterprise product more than a consumer one. Windows Mobile was great to use in its time, but it was clearly too geeky and IT-oriented for the masses. Blackberry, the iPhone and Android came along, and the rest is history — at least for now. Microsoft still has a relentless desire to dominate that space in the long term. And Microsoft is patient, but patience is not enough. Microsoft imperatively needs to be faster (to catch up) and better (to win) than Apple and Google. Here are the three things it needs to get back in the game, and win.

1/ A great OS, timely updates, and more apps

Software rules: “The value is in the software” – we say it all the time at Ubergizmo, and it’s never been so true in a time where many companies can ask original design equipment manufacturer (ODM) to design and produce any handset they want. On the other hand, only a a few companies can build an operating system (OS), and frankly that would be a shame if the world’s largest software company did not have a great one.

Updates: More importantly, Microsoft needs to move faster and provide OS updates on a regular basis to catch up with the competition in terms of important features. That’s not easy, because Microsoft is doing almost all the heavy lifting (drivers…) where Google’s Android can partly rely on handset makers to help  (maybe a better way?). But the market and consumers don’t care: we simply want products that work for us.

More, better Apps! Of course, I wish that there were more apps on WP7, but if Microsoft could have a *solid* set of 5000 apps. I could live with it. Heck, Android is still waiting for a good Netflix and/or Hulu apps. Microsoft should simply pay the best developers to port apps to Windows Phone. The company is doing some of that, but more needs to be done. At some point, they might even want to pay for exclusive apps like they do with Xbox.

It took a while but fortunately, Windows Phone 7 (WP7) is pretty darn good — much better than  many people would give it credit for. The user interface is fast, clean and the typography is remarkable. Did I mention the *amazing* Facebook integration and the great mobile Office apps?

2/ Critical Mass

What is Windows Phone? As far I can tell, relatively few people have seen Windows Phone 7 in action. That’s a pity, but that’s today’s reality. And what people don’t know, they can’t like. And what they don’t like, they don’t buy.

Nokia deal: Microsoft’s answer to this is: “Nokia”. With the Nokia deal, Microsoft hopes to significantly boost its market share and reach a critical mass (after all, everybody knows Nokia). That might very well work but it’s just hard to tell for now. In the end, Microsoft did *absolutely* need a handset partner that would “commit” to Windows Phone, rather than treating it like a second-class Android phone.

And Nokia is getting something out of it too: hard, cold, cash. The Microsoft/Nokia deal is worth “billions” Nokia’s CEO said recently at Mobile World Congress, and to be honest, I personally think that this might “save” Nokia, which really had next to nothing against the Android + iOS onslaught.

Attract developers: A critical mass will also attract app developers, and give them more incentive to put resources into Windows Phone apps.  It doesn’t matter if a platform is easy, or hard, to develop for — if the economics justify the effort, developers will find a way to make it work. Believe me a Playstation 1 was 100x harder to program for than any modern smartphone. And by the way, the WP7 SDK is really good — much better in my opinion than Apple’s and most definitely better than Google’s.

3/ A Sexy Smartphone Design!

Be desirable: Last, but definitely not least, Microsoft needs a *great* phone design. In some ways, this might be the second most important thing on the list (after having a good OS), but it is also the one that is  almost completely outside of Microsoft’s control. Because Microsoft doesn’t design or build the phone itself, it has to rely on its “clients” (Microsoft sells the OS to handset makers) to do that work. The photo above pretty much says it all…

Right now, the Samsung Focus is the best Windows Phone available, but in the grand scheme of things, it is physically very similar to the “Galaxy S” Android devices out there. It’s clear that Android has a much higher profile, so handset makers have tend to keep their best designs for something that the customer “knows” (therefore might “want”). Btw, check our Samsung Focus review, or the HTC surround review, as both are powered by Windows Phone 7.

One way or the other, Microsoft should do something to get handset makers to build fantastic designs – even if that means waving the OS fee for those phones. In the smartphone world, looks do matter too.

Conclusion

Microsoft has a lot of work to do, but despite the lack of “hype” surrounding Windows Phone 7, I think that the company has a good footing with their technology and their long-term commitment, even if today’s numbers are weak. I don’t know if Microsoft thinks that it can win based on technical merits, but I hope that they don’t, because technical merits only matters to a point.

Microsoft has been doing a great job with developers evangelism, but consumers (“regular folks”) is where the real fight is, and even if the company is throwing a ton of money at the problem (TV ads, product placement in top TV shows, billboards…), but you simply can’t always buy “coolness”.

The good news for Microsoft is that the refresh cycle for smartphones is much faster than it is for computers. Each customer who is shopping for a new phone is a potential new customer. Forget the hype: the ultimate vote of confidence comes from… the purse.

This article was filed in Homepage > Cellphones > Featured and was tagged with Microsoft, smartphones, Thoughts, Windows Phone and Windows Phone 7.
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