Editorial: The uphill battle Microsoft faces with Windows Mobile

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”.