Windows Phone Series 7: Attractively Different but can it Win?
Being attractively different may be the first requirement for something to step out from under the iPhone's and Android's shadows.
This product isn't just different from both platforms it is different from the way they are with Windows 7 and different from the way they were with previous versions of the platform.
Will it be an iPhone killer? Will it be an Android killer? Will it even be successful? We don't yet have enough information to make that determination but we can chat about what would be needed to in order for it to either wipe out Apple's franchise or just be successful.
Up until this week most of my peers felt that Microsoft wasn't even a player, with this announcement they are back in the game but clearly still in the back of the field and likely falling farther back until Windows Phone Series 7 actually ships on hardware. Let's talk about the critical bits of this new platform and what it will take to significantly beat Google and Apple to raise to the platform lead once more. A lot of us think this is really good, but is it great?
While it certainly took hard work the hubs surrounding People (social), Pictures (capture/sharing), Games, Media (Music + Video), Marketplace (application store), and Office can all be matched, or are mostly all matched, by each of the other two with two exceptions. That exception is games and games on phones have proven to be so successful that Apple, who has seemed to avoid games on their platforms like the plague, now has some good ones on their phone. This is where Google really lags.
The other exception is Office and you would expect Microsoft to do a better job of integrating with that platform than either of the other two. Here Google Apps likely stands out as the only real competitor short term. The other difference is control for while Microsoft will work with other vendors to get around Apple's limitations in terms of product breadth and carrier relationships they are also exercising tight control over the internal hardware which should provide a more consistent experience then Google does. So more reach then Apple and a more consistently better user experience than Google comes close to touching what Google and Apple have as advantages over each other. The problem is the phone.
Like Microsoft's Plays for Sure and initial Zune efforts identify the company hasn't been that great in assuring hardware design. They will clearly assure the insides of the phone but the appearance and consistent accessories will be critical to the platform being successful. Docking either requires consistent interface and base dimensions across phones or a consistent adapter model. If neither happens - incompatibilities between phones could keep this platform from catching Apple on accessories and if the phones are butt ugly they won't sell regardless of who makes them. Recall the GI Google phone was pretty much butt-ugly.
But if they are too controlling partners can't differentiate and major brands won't build the phones and carriers won't spend the marketing money like Verizon did with the Droid to move the products. This last is because no carrier wants to spend a ton of cash to get folks excited about a phone that their competitor can offer a clone of. The tight-rope that Microsoft has to walk here is really tight but if they can do this the platform will be successful. But how about beating Google?
I'm choosing Google first because they are the easier of the two. Google is a master of the back end and lives off advertising revenue. They give away their platform for free and play off the dissatisfaction with Windows Mobile and Symbian. Quality, at least when we think of what a phone needs, has been inconsistent, designs have varied from interesting to ugly, and there hasn't been much in the way of an accessories model that has come up around all of the phones. Google leads in search, has Google Apps, and YouTube for video. They aren't competitive in music or games. Finally, Google has shown no real competence in marketing devices, as the Droid campaign was done by Verizon.
Microsoft physically has what it needs in a product to beat Google; the issue for them will be trust. Microsoft let down their partners with the prior versions of Windows Mobile and these partners will be hard to convince they won't be let down again. Google, with the ChromeOS, blindsided their partners which means they may not trust Google that much at the moment either lowering the bar. If can out-market Google (not particularly hard) and gain back some of the trust they have lost (thanks to Google not as hard as it otherwise might be).
Apple isn't easy to beat but they have exposures as well. Apple's weaknesses include an unwillingness to embrace Flash, carriers that don't like them (because they take most of the profit and use a lot of bandwidth), a limited line (basically one design), and an application approval process that externally looks like black magic (no one outside of Apple can seem to figure out).
Microsoft will have more carriers and phones, but to beat Apple one or more have to have to generate the excitement the iPhone and iPad products generate. This would require the combination of an Apple like launch, and Apple/Droid like marketing campaign, and a stunning phone. The last they can do but only with Windows 95 have they had an Apple like launch. The Windows 7 (PC) team has demonstrated they can market at Apple's level but that team is not (to my knowledge) engaged on the Windows Mobile platform and typically it is the OEMs who are left to market their offerings. None of them have demonstrated Apple’s level of marketing or launch capability even though HP has, at times, been able to demonstrate (PC Personal Campaign) Apple level marketing.
Right now beating Apple, given Microsoft's demonstrated capabilities will require Apple to screw up which, while possible, doesn't happen that often so think this goal (assuming it is a goal) will prove elusive.
For what Microsoft needed to accomplish at Mobile World Congress they did well. But this is like winning a preliminary heat in the Olympics; no one will really care unless Microsoft goes on to win a medal. For that they and their partners will still have to step up to a level of performance they haven't demonstrated for some time on this platform and only rarely demonstrated on other platforms and products. Can they beat Google maybe, Apple maybe not, succeed certainly - but they have only passed a preliminary test here and now are lined up for the medal round. In short the question isn't can they win but will they and last decade was full of examples where they didn't.
This effort will ether redefine the company as a success or reassure folks that Microsoft still can't execute. They do have a history of setting the bar too low and this is their first real chance to showcase that this decade will be different. Like many of you I'm looking forward to the new phones and hoping this decade will be different than the last. Microsoft is now in the medal round and we'll know by the end of the year whether they can medal.
I hope so.
Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.