By: Hillel Fuld
Generally speaking, when I sit down to write a blog post, it is after I dedicated some serious thoughts to the topic and my conclusion/opinion on whatever it is I am writing about. This post is different. I am starting this with no clear conclusion. The topic of the next mobile platform by the world’s leading software company leaves me with one big question mark about its future success. I wrote about what I think the OS needs in order to succeed, and I knew all this before laying hands on a Windows Phone 7 device for the first time. Now, after playing and testing one out, albeit for a very short period of time, my thought have not changed much, in fact, they are even less clear now.
Let me give a little background since you probably have no clue what I am even talking about. Microsoft announced that they are not going to sit back and let Apple and Google have all the fun in the mobile industry. They introduced their next mobile operating system to compete with the giants, and they called it Windows Phone 7. Before I get into the pluses (there are quite a few) and minuses (unfortunately, these have quite a strong presence), let me say that Microsoft seems to have come out of its bureaucratic old school shell and realized that they are playing in a new world now. They reached out to what they defined as “key influencers” and gave them phones to review. This generated the desired result with quite a significant amount of online noise.
Well, Microsoft reached out to me and some of my fellow bloggers (unfortunately only after the above influencers had already spoken and we already knew what to expect) and invited us to an event in which they would demo the new platform and give us some “quality time” with the new devices.
To be honest, I have never owned a Windows Mobile phone, but I did own an HP iPaq, which ran Windows Mobile 5. That was the first and last Windows Mobile device I ever touched. I am no Microsoft hater just in case you were wondering. While I do own a Macbook, iPod, and iPad, I use a PC as my primary computer and am not looking to change that any time soon. However, when it comes to mobile platforms, Microsoft never managed to impress me.
So, I sat yesterday in a room with some of the lead developers of the Windows Phone 7 platform and heard what they had to say about this new endeavor into the most competitive market on the planet. My thoughts on Windows Phone 7, as I wrote above are non conclusive and are actually all over the place, but here they are.
The Down Side of Windows Phone 7
Let’s start with the bad, shall we? What is up with the name, Microsoft? In a market dominated by iOS, Android, Froyo, and Gingerbread, you genuinely expect to compete with something called Windows Phone 7? I think you gotta rethink that strategy and come up with a name just a wee bit catchier. If you need some suggestions, you know where to find me.
Moving along, the overwhelming feeling I got in our meeting yesterday was that Microsoft has been developing this platform in somewhat of a vacuum reality. In a pre-iPhone/Froyo world, maybe you were able to wow bloggers with a universal search on the phone or integrated social features (truth be told, iPhone doesn’t compete on this front), but to compete today, you are going to have to work a lot harder than that.
The presenter spoke about how they will offer this OS on phones that all have the same specs. Same processor (minimum of a 1Ghz Snapdragon), same size screen (looked like a 3.5 incher), same three hardware buttons (Back, Home, and Search), etc etc. He then explained that this was the decision made by Microsoft in order to prevent a fragmented user experience for their customers. They do not want developers to have develop various versions of the same app because that would ruin the experience. Now, if you have read my writing, chances are you have come across my thoughts on Android fragmentation, but he was talking like Android is a failure of a platform. He did not even address the Android advantage of openness, he just said how different devices with different specs would never work. Strange…
Another example of this is the very basic principle of how the new OS looks. You do not scroll between home screens, as in side to side, but rather, there is one home screen with all the boxes you want and it is all accessed using “unlimited” vertical scrolling… He went on to say that most people do not look at things not on their main home screen. Again I say, while there is something to that, have you ever heard of a little phone called iPhone? That seems to have sold pretty well and last I checked people like the whole multiple home screens concept.
Anyway, everything he was saying seemed to be completely disconnected from the reality of the present mobile industry. More examples? No copy and paste, no multitasking. This might have worked two years ago, in fact it did work two years ago with the first and second iPhones, but Microsoft, this is not 2008 anymore. If you want to seriously compete, sorry to be cliché but get with the times.
One last complaint, and I know it all sounds pretty bad so far, but wait, there are many positive things about Windows Phone 7, is the lack if innovation, at least from where I was sitting. The event took place, as a fellow blogger and friend, Oren Todoros pointed out, in the “Innovation Lab” of Microsoft. The only innovation I saw was the fact that they had invited bloggers. Beyond that, social integration, a nice email user interface, no Flash support, an advanced search algorithm, these are all things we have seen. Truth be told, some of the implementation on this new platform is nice, very nice, but what amazing new things did Microsoft bring to the table here?
OK, here’s the thing. The people who invited me are going to be reading this (I hope they have not closed the page by now), but that is really not the reason that I am about to say what I am about to say. I would buy a Windows Phone 7, I really would.
Windows Phone 7′s Selling Points
The hardware, although it is pre-release and will probably be different when unleashed to the public, was impressive. I am going to put hardware on the side for a second and talk about the experience. It was fast. Really fast. It was intuitive, and I am talking more intuitive than Android. The deep integration of the various social tools was not revolutionary, but it was smooth and in my opinion better than any other platform I have tried. Full disclosure, I have not tried Palm Pre, which is supposed to excel at this.
The user interface was nice and seemed to be very practical. You can easily add these boxes, which to me screamed of Android widgets, although less customizable, and access almost any app, person, or phone function you desire in one click. The search on the phone was extremely impressive bringing up different results based on where you are located in the phone’s menus. It was fast, accurate, and overall impressive.
I could definitely see myself using one of these devices.
Windows Phone 7 and Apps
However, in my opinion, and the nice Microsoft developer disagreed with me on this point, good hardware is nice, a user friendly OS is important, but at the end of the day, what wins over mobile consumers in today’s market is software. Apps, apps, apps.
In my opinion, the fact that Microsoft is clearly going to be adopting the Apple policy over the open gates of the Android Market, might be their biggest and most damaging mistake. You do not need to tell me how big of a mess the Android Market is, trust me, I know, but at the end of the day, what Microsoft needs now more than ever is a happy developer community and rejecting their apps will not achieve that goal.
They politely explained to us that their standards of approval are transparent on the website and when they reject apps, they explain to the developer what they need to do to get approved. Microsoft, I got news for you. So does Apple! Yet we all know how much negative press they get as a result of their dictatorship-like app policies. Now, Apple can take that press, they can take a lot worse as this last week has shown, because they not only offer a superior industry leading product but they make their developers a heck of a lot of money. Not sure you can handle this bad publicity, especially after the latest Kin embarrassment.
On the flip side, the app experience, at least according to common sense, should be superior to that of Android with no fragmentation and strict standard of what makes the MarketPlace.
My Conclusion on Windows Phone 7
I can go on for a long time and discuss both the great and not such great things about Windows Phone 7, but I will sum it up for you. When this platform is released, no one will be calling it a revolution. However, it will appeal to the enterprise world (with nice Office integration, but lacking full editing capabilities) the way the iPhone cannot (yet), it will appeal to the gamer’s world (with nice Xbox integration) the way Android cannot, and to that Windows Mobile community that is very much alive and kicking, well they are a no brainer, they are gonna love this platform.
Microsoft told us they will be sending us a device to review and test over a more extended period of time. I hope after reading this, I will not be banned from ever touching any Microsoft product again. For what it’s worth, I have some criticism of the Windows Phone 7 platform, but at the end of the day, like I said, I would buy one, so that should count for something, right?
What I saw yesterday in Microsoft was a very pretty OS that takes some of the advantages of the Apple platform, some of the advantages of the Android platform and puts it all together in a nice looking and very practical user interface. I think Microsoft gave new meaning to the phrase “If you can’t beat em, join em”.
Would love to hear your thoughts. Would you buy a Windows Phone 7 device? What do you think Microsoft has to do in order to become a real competitor in this space? Please let me know in the comments.