Windows Phone 7 – feeling a little bit sorry for Microsoft

In this post I take a look at how Microsoft are in an unfamiliar position with Windows Phone 7, given their history of releasing products where success was almost guaranteed.

Google? Apple? They are the Diet-Coke of evil!
People who call Google or Apple evil really need to look a bit further back in history. Microsoft’s activities in the late 80’s and 1990’s are way in excess of any bad behaviour we see from today’s big IT players. Look at how they deliberately broke Windows 3.1 on DR-DOS – generating lots of bad press and Fear/Uncertainty/Doubt against a perfectly good product. Not to mention how they paid very special attention to the German PC OS market where DR-DOS was selling really well. Within 12 months they wiped DR-DOS out of the German market by a series of tricks including heavily incentivising PC manufacturers to make sure they switched to pre-installing Microsoft operating systems. The subsequent integration of MS-DOS 7.0 and Windows 95 made sure DR-DOS was finally buried under six feet of earth, even though Digital Research were able to demonstrate Windows 95 just fine on top of DR-DOS.
It’s a rule of thumb that Microsoft doesn’t deliver the best products in a given market, but uses pushy business practices and the power of their existing monopoly to ensure success, often at the expense of more innovative competitors. This usually happens while they make a point of telling everybody how innovative they are.
Smartphones
The mobile phone market played out in a similar way, with Microsoft using their Windows brand recognition to become the dominant player in the smartphone segment. But when the iPhone arrived in 2007 it caused massive disruption, making it glaringly obvious that Windows Mobile had seen little change in five years and was hopelessly dated. The user interface of the iPhone had been written from scratch to work with a touch screen, and was designed to be used with fingers rather than a stylus. It was a game changer and is the kind of technology where everyone remembers the first time they saw it and used it.
Fast forward to the present day and the iPhone has been around long enough to have lost the initial wow factor, and since it was released the user interface has changed very little. The home screen is still an elegant but simplistic grid of icons that launch programs, reminiscent of the style used by the Windows 3.1 Program Manager.
Windows Phone 7
Meanwhile, Microsoft has been hard at work responding to the iPhone and has released Windows Phone 7. It’s a complete break from the older Windows Mobile product line and incorporates a spectacular new user interface. Rather than mimic the iPhone or Android, it has a completely original style with some genuine innovations. At first it seems simplistic, with all “chrome” removed in favour of large slabs of primary colour and plain text instead of buttons and icons. It really needs to be seen working to be fully appreciated, where the fluid animations and general feeling of flair and simplicity become apparent. WP7’s solution to the problem of restrictive screen size on mobiles is genius –applications are intentionally designed to be bigger than the screen, and the phone acts like a sliding window onto the application. You swipe left and right to move through various pages, instead of the hierarchical approach of iOS where you can end up three or four levels deep in settings pages.
WP7 is all about the software and the experience of using it. The sheer originality and innovation in the user interface really does bring a wow factor to WP7, just like we got with the iPhone at launch. In fact WP7 makes the iPhone look a little dated – it is now Apple on the back foot who need to do something bigger than an incremental update with their next iOS release.
It’s not often that this happens, but Microsoft has the best product on the market at the moment. And this time round they haven’t imitated or bought out their competitors, or used excessive marketing muscle – they’ve competed on merit and done a great job of it. In spite of this, the success of WP7 is by no means guaranteed – in fact the odds are stacked against it. iPhone and Android have a large installed user base and huge application libraries, while the WP7 app library is severely lacking. To make matters worse, many customers already have a smartphone and moving from one phone platform to another isn’t a step to be taken lightly because it can involve repurchasing paid applications and possibly difficult data migration.
Taking the plunge…
In spite of the inconvenience of switching platforms I’m intrigued and seriously tempted to migrate to a WP7 device. My contract is nearly up and my 3G iPhone feels long in the tooth, even though it remained on sale for nearly twelve months after I bought it. I felt badly let down as a 3G owner by the iOS 4 upgrade, which had all the compelling new features disabled, yet performs so poorly that it’s horrible to use. Meanwhile some app store developers are getting lazy and releasing iOS-4-only applications regardless of whether they actually need features specific to the newer OS. I don’t like having my arm twisted to upgrade in this way – especially when still under contract.

 

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