Editorial: The uphill battle Microsoft faces with Windows Mobile

20 Comments

uphill3_lThe recent announcements by Microsoft (s MSFT) 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”.

20 Comments

Quinton

Like spinedoc, I currently use an iPhone and I too miss the power of the Windows Mobile platform. The main problem to me is that Microsoft isn’t making their own hardware. One would think that with the acquisition of Danger by MS that they would have yet again ventured into an area where they have had success – building their own hardware (look at the Xbox & to some extent, the Zune). Lo and behold they instead hammered out an agreement with LG for 50 WinMo handsets. Fifty! Where does this leave the less than tech savy consumer? In the position as before, Limbo.

Brand recognition goes out the door with all these different manufacturers, each producing numerous WinMo phones. Software updates? We remain at the mercy of the carriers & manufacturers. Is Windows mobile 6.5 enough? Hell no! Any advances made on the UI are nullified by the fact that MS refuses to manufacture their own hardware. Well, I guess it’s more xda-developers for my upgrades.

Gary Edwards

It is surprising that Microsoft monopoly machine has been busy elsewhere, hardly noticing that the future of the Open Web is slipping through their fingers. So much for the fabled monopolist’s iron grip.

Because of some prescient decisions Apple made early on with iPhone and WebKit, the edge of the Web is now in position to define the future of the entire Web platform. It seems to me that Apple made three very important decisions early on in the iPhone design, that are now driving forces:

….. iPhone browser based on an open source WebKit community.

….. Development of the WebKit layout/rendering engine to support a rapidly advancing Web document model based on HTML5, CSS3, SVG/Canvas, and JavaScript+

….. The open standards based Webkit document model is also the basis of a standards based Web application framework (Sproutcore).

The Web is a document centric platform that has long suffered because browser wars effectively crippled the advance of the HTML document model. Incompatibilities between browsers provided vendors like Microsoft with the opportunity to devise their own Web formats, protocols and interfaces. Today, Microsoft applications offer a “Web duality” where users can basically choose between low end “crippled” but open standard HTML technologies, or, high end “feature rich” but proprietary .NET-WPF technologies.

This Hobbsian choice works well for Microsoft because of the volumes of Microsoft business users bound to the MSOffice-Outlook-Access desktop productivity environment through years of client/server systems and business process development. Rather than lose critically important information or break a business process on conversion to Open Web standard but low end technologies, business users will likely choose the feature rich and “integrated-interoperable” but proprietary solution. Even if it is beyond expensive.

Microsoft knows this and indeed has built out their entire WebStack-Cloud-RiA initiative holding all the business aces. Where they missed it though is the incredible surge in edge of the Web computational devices. MS fought hard to protect their monopoly base while getting the proprietary pieces in place to leverage that monopoly across the Web. They are believed to have paid over $14 Billion in penalties and settlements in their zeal to block competition. Yet here we are; the future of the Open Web is being defined at the edge, and Microsoft is not to be found. They have been caught uncharacteristically out of position, without a play.

There’s something else happening at the edge. The iPhone has blasted through the barrier of legacy user interface and interaction with an incredible multi-dimensional, multi-media, highly visual model. On the one hand we have Jen-Hsun Huang, clutching the Nvidia ION in his palm, waxing eloquent about the graphical processing power demanded by the Age of Visual Computing. And on the other, we have the WebKit-iPhone community sinking graphical transformations and visual transitions into the Open Web document model (CSS – Canvas) instead of into some platform specific API!

At last year’s Web 2.0 Conference, Microsoft was selling hard their VML-XAML-Silverlight-Mesh proprietary technologies. Adobe developers were there in force, pushing Flex-Flash-AiR proprietary RiA. The forces of Ajax and the Open Web were almost nowhere to be seen. Very surprising given that previous years had been all Ajax, all the time. Yet, here we are, a year later, and the Open Web is running away with RiA, with Cloud Computing, and WebStacks. All because of those devices on the edge of the Web, sweeping into the communications and connectivity plans of near everyone who needs to be connected.

Defining the document model of the future Web is beyond important. Sure, it’s true that there are no desktop editors of consequence capable of producing Open Web documents rich in complexity, compound with services, data, and media bindings, and vital to business processes through workflow and application routing logic. Since these shortcomings were not enough to stop the WebKit guys on the edge, i’m beginning to think it won’t be enough to stop WebKit, FireFox, Opera and anyone else pushing this highly interactive and visual document model across the Web.

We shall see. My guess? Finally, the walls of the great monopolist have been breached.

~ge~

T Lewis

Totally agree on the last 3 points.
-WM’s built-in functionality is flexible and powerful…but a bitch to tame.

-No matter what shell we cower behind – SPB, Vito, etc – raw WM is lurking 2 or 3 clicks down.

-They must make WM’s UI sweeter. Currently it’s as fun to decipher as a ventilation schematic for a Motel6.
T
(ps to James…I was supposed to be in Space City right now, actually – but things arose. I’ll see you over some brewed beverage in a month or two if you’re game)

spinedoc

For the record I use an iphone and while I greatly appreciate the easy UI and the rock solid platform, I must say I very much miss the functionality of windows mobile. If MS could just get the UI and marketing right the WM platform would just blow up IMO.

spinedoc

I think the problem with saying that MS wants developers to develop their own interfaces is that there is some kind of format that WM/CE programs are formatted to. This is the interface that there is issue with, the tiny x in the corner, etc etc. I’m no developer, but it seems like an awesome overlay like the ones HTC develops has no effect on the Microsoft underpinnings. Especially when you install a 3rd party program. No matter how nice the developer makes it look, you will sooner or later drill down to the basic OS which is what is flawed.

For the life of me I just don’t understand how Microsoft could have let the WM team be so uncreative and uncaring for so long. I understand WM is still a strong business seller, but they are just getting trounced in the media market by the iphone, android, and soon the palm pre. Does it really take a genius to figure out that WM7 needs to come out yesterday? Hell scrap WM7 and just let HTC redesign the entire OS, and fire the WM team.

Jake

The biggest problem I have with your main argument is that it could equally be applied to Android. Google are letting anyone install their OS and we’ve already heard that different vendors intend to customise and rebrand the interface. Shall we declare the end of Android too?

You also ignore the fact that Windows Mobile sales are still strong and that iPhone sales are actually falling (if only slightly). Windows Mobile outsold the iPhone last year and there’s no reason to think that it can’t carry on successfully.

I agree that Microsoft need to make changes, especially in terms of updating the OS on the fly. I also think they could do with bringing the browser up to date and improving the PIM functionality. However, you shouldn’t discount the value of the OS as a platform that allows developers to easily write apps that target the familiar .NET framework. You’re also ignoring the fact that Microsoft actually want OEMs to develop their own interfaces – this isn’t just done to hide the default interfaces “flaws” – and they said as much at MWC.

Finally, you’re ignoring the fact that it caters largely to a corporate market because it offers integration that other phones can only dream of. This should definitely not be discounted.

HSK

If you look at where WM was in the hierarchy when the first iPhone came out and look at the environment now, it seems to be completely different, IMO. I loved (yes, past tense) WM for most of the reasons stated above, but find myself not even considering it for my next phone – and 6.5 is not changing my opinion. I think RIM is just barely ahead of MSFT in regards to this too, they just happen to “fit” in the consumer market a little better than WM does – at this time.

Apple, Android and Palm are what’s “next” and I think WM and RIM (to some extent if they don’t improve their OS) are becoming what “was”.

Alaintrottier

It will be very difficult for MIcrosoft, their income with WM is to small if we compare with the iPhone. Those day who they can inject indefinitely money (from Window/Office income) on «comme-ci comme-ça» product are behind.

Sorry for my poor english.

Optical10

I totally agree James. You and I have a HTC advantage which is totally future proof from the hardware perspective but because our carriers do not release a software update it stuck in limbo. You can get a cooked ROM but who wants to break their phone. Wake up Microsoft and smell the coffee. I’m seriously considering switching to the iPhone for the Google phone.Great article by the way. :-)

T Lewis

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

pimlicosound

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.

William

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.

ZSX

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.

Sam

@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…

Neil

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.

Fernando

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.

CSMR

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.

Phil Lee

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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