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Summary:

The recent announcements by Microsoft detailing Windows Mobile (WM) 6.5 and to a lesser degree WM 7.0 have left many questioning the continued relevance of Windows Mobile in the future.  The incremental update to WM has been received as expected with some excited for the future […]

uphill3_lThe recent announcements by Microsoft detailing Windows Mobile (WM) 6.5 and to a lesser degree WM 7.0 have left many questioning the continued relevance of Windows Mobile in the future.  The incremental update to WM has been received as expected with some excited for the future and others declaring “too little, too late.”  Take the next version of WM as you will, Microsoft faces a great challenge to keep WM relevant in today’s smartphone market.

Microsoft has not seemed to realize how consumer perception becomes the new reality in the smartphone space.  WM may be the most advanced platform in the smartphone world (open to debate) but that becomes a moot point when consumers aren’t aware of it.  All of the major players in the smartphone game made a shift to reach mainstream consumers in the last couple of years and they quickly discovered this is totally different than the enthusiast communities and enterprises they’ve been targeting for so long.

Consumers by and large don’t care what is driving their phone, they are focused on the phone itself.  That’s why Apple has been so successful with the iPhone while other companies have struggled.  The reality is that consumers don’t care (and often don’t even know) if their phone is powered by Windows Mobile or S60.   They are only aware of the particular phone they use or want and what others say about it.

It’s easy to say this isn’t so, but I’ve seen it too many times to believe otherwise.  Palm was able to extend the life of their products when they introduced the WM-powered Treo.  This Treo was more in line with competitive products and consumers snapped them up.  These consumers were not buying WM Treos however.  They were simply buying a Treo, and if you asked them what OS that Treo was running, they didn’t know.  It was “just a Treo.”  And that is the battle that Microsoft faces with Windows Mobile going forward, as they try to reach deeper into the consumer space, a space defined by phones and not the platform.

The problem that Microsoft is going to have to deal with is caused by the Windows Mobile ecosystem itself.  While it’s great for Microsoft that there are so many partners making WM phones, it definitely fragments the image of the platform in the consumer’s eyes.  Throw in the reality that these partners are all changing highly visible parts of the OS to differentiate their product from all the other WM phones and the problem is even worse.  Just take a look at the major phones in the market that run WM6.1 and you’ll see what I mean.

You can’t overstate how important the user experience is in the consumer space with smartphones.  This alone is what makes the phone appealing and work well enough that consumers buy them and show their friends.  This drives momentum for consumer sales and is critical for the success of a given phone in the market.  The problem that Microsoft faces with WM is directly related to the user experience on phones driven by WM.

The WM ecosystem that Microsoft has developed guarantees that WM-based phones have no common user experience.  The hardware partners are putting their own spin on the interface to make their phones stand out.  Then you have carriers also involved who are quick to change the features on a given phone to fit their own purposes.  We’ve seen so many WM phones that differ greatly among carriers in the U.S. and Europe due to this “customization” by both the partners and carriers.  Not only do WM phones in general not have a common interface or user experience but a given phone can vary greatly among carriers.  This is fatal to Microsoft in the consumer space.

The other area that poses a big problem for Microsoft is with WM upgrades, or lack of them.  They come too few and far between and when they are released there is no common mechanism for the consumer to get them.  Smartphone owners are a product of the desktop Windows environment for the large part and know that bugs and security issues are things they should be aware of.  They know that OS updates, in this case phone updates, deal with these issues and currently have no reason to expect they can’t get updates.

Microsoft releases a WM update but leaves it up to the hardware partner to make it available to phone owners or not.  The partners decide, using whatever criteria they want, whether a given WM phone will be provided with an update when one exists.  In the U.S. it gets worse, as the carrier then gets the update from the hardware vendor and then gets to decide whether THEIR customers will get said update.  I have heard from so many people who hear that their WM phone has an update and they contact the OEM for information.  They are either told they aren’t going to get an update for THEIR phone or that one has been produced and turned over to the carrier.  The customer is in limbo at this point, trying to get information from the carrier as to when the update will be available to them.  The sad thing is, they are often told by the carrier that they are not going to provide said update to THEIR customers.  This is just plain wrong on so many levels and not likely to change in the future because Microsoft is totally removed from the update process due to the ecosystem in place.

The purpose of this article is not to delve into the technical aspects of the upcoming versions of Windows Mobile.  It’s not to say that competitor’s phones are better or worse than future WM products.  The purpose is to point out how Microsoft faces a huge battle in the consumer perception area which will greatly hamper their acceptance in this space.  Microsoft realizes this I am sure with their new insistence that WM-based phones are to be called “Windows phones”.  This is definitely an attempt to increase consumer awareness of the OS used on these phones.  It’s not enough though, even when coupled with the mandate that all Windows Phones have a Windows button on the device.  Consumers don’t care and won’t even realize this means “Microsoft Inside”.

  1. My last four phones have all been windows Mobile devices. I’ve had the original Orange SPV (HTC Canary), an Orange C500 (HTC Typhoon), a T-Mobile Vario (HTC Wizard) and a T-Mobile Vario III (HTC Kaiser). I got the original SPV because of its syncing with Outlook and put up with its limitations as a phone. The C500 was a massive upgrade and is still a great phone to use. The Vario was my first touch device and worked really well with the keyboard. I used that for 2 years waiting for the Vario III to come out. I ordered my upgrade the first day it was available because of its 3G and GPS.

    I’m now approaching the end of that 18 month contract in May and really don’t see myself getting another Windows Mobile device. There are several reasons for that. I am drawn to the eye candy of the iPhone and having switched over to Macs it makes sense. The broswer also looks a lot better than on Windows Mobile, including Opera Mobile. I also like the look of a number of feature phones with their excellent cameras, something that’s always been lacking on Windows Mobile devices. I’ve been very impressed with my wife’s SE C905.

    I suspect Iin the end ‘ll wait til the next iPhone refresh then get one and stick a PAYG sim in my Vario III and keep it as a sat nav.

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  2. Good article. Agrees with some other commentary out there. You might think Microsoft is a tough sell because even when it comes out with good products (not including WM) consumer perception can be entirely different, e.g. the negative reception that Vista had outside tech forums. But if reputation is tied to phones it might be able to succeed if it changes its mentality, moves fast, wields its power without bending to carriers, and works with partners to create some attractive phone brands.
    But it still needs a technology update too. Even though it’s all about consumer perception, technical reviewers and technical users have a (limited) role in forming that.

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  3. Kind of interesting how almost the opposite applies to computers (desktops, laptops, etc), where people are more drawn to the OS. I mean, you are either a Mac or a PC.

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  4. On one hand you’re saying that consumers don’t care (or even know) what OS is on their phone, while, on the other hand, they want to be applying system updates and upgrades? I don’t follow your logic there.

    Some consumers won’t know a Touch HD from a Storm… but the last thing on their minds will be “when’s the next update?”. They just want their phone to work until it’s handset upgrade time.

    Those that do pay attention to updates and the like tend to be the tinkerers like us. The brave and the bold if you like ;-) And that’s where the major strength of WM comes in… it’s customisability. It’s the very fact I can change the way the phone operates that’s kept me on WM for so many years. I can get my phone to work the way I (not Steve Jobs) want it to.

    This is where Palm are hitting the sweet spot with the Pre: a great device seemingly on all fronts that’s open to developers to do something actually useful with it. The Pre is the biggest threat to WM that I can see for this very reason.

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  5. @Neil

    Agreed at 100% –

    Another major point the article fails to mention is the fact that the consumer is also drawn to the feature the Network Operators offers. How useful is a smartphone if GPRS and/or 3G is not available? It might not make much difference in the U.S. but it is certainly the differentiator in other parts of the world where Nokia dominates by a wide margin…

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  6. I’m an avid Windows Mobile user, but even I think MS has backed themselves into a corner. One of the strengths of Windows Mobile is the ease with which it is customized, which is appealing for device manufacturers (it enables differentiation of their products) and for the service providers who actually offer these phones. In fact, I would argue that the latter are the true customers of Windows Mobile, and not the end user who will go with whatever shiny phone is offered.

    Unfortunately, you are right in that this does fragment the platform in terms of the user experience, and I am sure that MS recognizes this. Their new requirement for 6.5 after all is that all phones must have a Windows button, replacing the current home button on HTC devices, and serving as a constant reminder to anyone with that phone that they are using a Windows phone, regardless of the interface.

    6.5 was a decent point upgrade, but the reality is that most users will see very little of the new skin since most Windows phones now have their own manufacturer based UI. The trouble is how to keep that UI consistency when it comes to 3rd party software, especially the back catalogue of apps. I heard rumblings that MS was going to lock down the UI, but think that this would be very bad for developers and the platform as a whole.

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  7. The upgrade situation is really where WM falls down. Its interesting that now that Microsoft is trying to brand the phones running WM as “Windows Phones” they still are going to be pointing fingers at everyone else when someone wants an upgrade. It is really just a magnification of the problems with wireless in the United States. Microsoft builds a new release but the handset maker needs to support it. The handset maker supports it but it goes to the carriers for release. The carrier then has to release it. Hell, we cant even get phones that use all their features without carriers turning them off or charging extra. (Verizon, I’m looking at you!)

    Until Windows Mobile supports capacative touch, has a unified interface and control scheme and is upgradable directly from Microsoft on the day and date that an update is released, they are going to be relegated as the smartphone that you get when someone else is buying it for you.

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  8. James is on to something here. WM phones are never marketed as such. They first carry the manufacturer’s brand and model name; these then get re-branded as they’re almost always sold through carriers.

    At no point in the sales or marketing process is Microsoft or Windows mentioned.

    It’s probably unfortunate that by the time users have drilled through a third-party interface and reach a layer that looks like MS Windows, it’s instantly recognisable as the worst-looking part of the experience. So the moment it might dawn on people that they’re using a Windows phone is the moment they realise the experience sucks, and they’re bound to associate the two.

    I think Microsoft is suffering from a similar problem to the one they face in the PC market. They have little control (compared to, say, Apple) over the hardware their OS runs on, and little control over how the package is presented. As such, people might not know that Windows is powering their phone, or they might dislike the OS because of bad hardware, or they might dislike the phone because of a bad OS.

    Microsoft has no control over that experience or any way or preventing any of those situations from occurring.

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  9. This feels very familiar to the agony many tablet pc lovers have been going thru for years. Microsoft has a great idea…lots of ambition…an open market (read: monopoly)…blue skies ahead. And they can’t close the deal because of what appears to be disconnect in how to make a human comfortable and happy. Instead we’re left with a flurry of features…some cool, some trivial…but consistently confusing and arcane. The fiddly nerds (me…you) are engaged but the rest of humanity just wants something that, for God’s sake, just does what the need it to do. Enter Apple.

    T

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  10. Well said T and an accurate analogy. When you coming to Houston?

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