The Microsoft Smoke and Mirrors Report

October 13th, 2010

As Windows 7 receives surprisingly favorable reviews from the tech media, I have to wonder why there are so few critical comments about Microsoft’s ongoing claims of innovative products that are actually imitative.

Take the infamous ribbon that has graced recent versions of Office for Windows and the Mac. That it’s a context-sensitive toolbar — changing based on the function you’re using — is supposedly a unique or at least innovative feature. But that’s absurd. There have been a number of other applications over the years, including CorelDRAW for the Mac (no longer being developed or supported) that offered toolbars of that sort. And let’s not forget Adobe InDesign, where the toolbar also changes depending on which tool or function you select. So what makes the ribbon so different? Larger icons?

Microsoft sure has a strange concept of innovation.

With Windows 7, Microsoft’s “innovation” is the use of tiles and hubs rather than icons and folders. Indeed, when you look at the Home screen, you might recall the clear resemblance to some of those Mac OS launching docks, such as the original Launcher from the Classic Mac OS.

I suppose Microsoft ought to be congratulated for building an interface that doesn’t look like another iPhone knock-off. But when Microsoft pulls a stunt of this sort, they risk making it more difficult for customers to become acclimated to the OS. Ditching standard menu bars in Windows 7 for their own apps was another foolish decision that, while surely a different approach, hardly made for a more productive environment.

As far as the handset makers are concerned, the first crop of Windows 7 smartphones appear to be little different from the Android OS gear the same companies already build. The biggest change is the OS, which surely reduces development costs.

The problem is that, once again, Microsoft may have a decent enough product, but they fail to travel new roads. Using a tile rather than an icon doesn’t count. They haven’t actually rethought the concept of smartphone interfaces in a way that makes the product functionally superior to existing devices, and you’d think that’s what Microsoft had to do in order to salvage the Windows Mobile platform.

Even cut, copy and paste isn’t supported, although it will supposedly be added some time next year. But that’s Microsoft’s way, which is to introduce something that is inferior in some ways to the competition, but then boast that hey’ll remedy that shortcoming in the future. That may have worked in the PC operating system space, but the smartphone business is moving too fast. The competition will be busy adding new features next year, just as Microsoft struggles to offer what you could get this year.

This doesn’t mean that the spate of Windows 7 smartphones arriving this holiday season can’t or won’t succeed. It sure seems that Microsoft will back the products with plenty of high-power advertising, and the same is probably true for their largest domestic carrier, AT&T.

For companies that have previously deployed Windows Mobile gear, or are otherwise heavily invested in Microsoft products, such as Exchange Server, I suppose there will be a perceived advantage in buying up batches of the new smartphones. That is, after they run them in test environments to make sure they actually operate satisfactorily, and provide the requisite level of security.

Since Windows 7 is a version 1.0 product, you can also expect that there will be early release bugs of one sort or another, although that won’t be clear until the final shipping products are reviewed in the next few weeks.

The best I can say, absent a thorough examination of the shipping product, is that Microsoft is at least trying to appear different, and offer the veneer of innovation. In the end, the marketplace will decide whether it’s a case of being too little and too late.

Remember that in 2011, iOS 5 will be available, along with several interim upgrades to the Android OS. There will also be revisions to RIM’s BlackBerry software, and other updates. If Microsoft is still struggling to add last year’s features into their mobile OS, they may indeed suffer the same fate that they confronted with the Zune.

As you recall, the Zune digital media player was also a perfectly good product, with a snazzy interface and decent performance. But Microsoft’s concept of social networking, “Join the Social,” was another symptom of the pathetic efforts of a company that was utterly clueless about how young people actually interact online.

Time will tell whether tiles and hubs will prove to be demonstrably better than icons and folders, or whether just being different ends up being just another bad idea from Microsoft. And they’ve had far too many of those in recent years.

In the end, Microsoft may actually be better off shedding their consumer division, and selling it off to someone who truly understands the business. There’s still plenty of cash to be made from traditional PC and server software, although that is a market that will be sharply reduced in the years to come.

Or maybe Microsoft should just give back the money to the shareholders and close up shop. But didn’t someone say the very same thing about Apple some years ago?

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4 Responses to “The Microsoft Smoke and Mirrors Report”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Microsoft, Gene Steinberg. Gene Steinberg said: Here's my latest Tech Night Owl commentary: : The Microsoft Smoke and Mirrors Report […]

  2. pjs_boston says:

    For the most part I agree with your assessment. Most of WP7’s underlying UI functionality is blatantly lifted from the iPhone. However, they really have no choice. Unless their software has multi-touch gestures, a usable soft-keyboard, an app store, etc. it will fail utterly in the marketplace.

    I am a diehard Apple fan. I own an iMac, a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an iPhone 3GS, and an iPod Classic. That said, I must give praise where it is due.

    Despite all the blatant copying of the basic UI, Microsoft has shown some genuine creativity with the new interface. The graphic design is new and fresh, and the transition animations are different and lovely – as if the UI is assembling itself before the user’s eyes. Other nice touches are the consistency of the UI metaphor across the entire system, and the nifty way spell checker suggestions integrate with the keyboard.

    Plus, there are a few new features. For example the software supports a dedicated camera button that wakes the phone to the camera app and doubles as the shutter button. I also like that the user can configure the phone to automatically upload photos as they are taken to a free cloud storage service. These are genuinely good ideas that nobody else has implemented.

    WP7 is a huge step forward for Microsoft that represents a new design flair, an attention to detail, and a focus on UI responsiveness. The software is only at 1.0. Let’s give them a little time to elaborate on what they’ve done before we brand it another Xerox job.

    Besides, WP7 may help to keep Apple on it’s toes.

    • Andrew says:

      @pjs_boston, I agree. WP7 looks like a very nice system, too bad they are launching on AT&T though.

      I use Verizon and will upgrade my BlackBerry Storm2 in January, so long as something suitable exists to upgrade to. I dislike Android and need excellent MS Exchange support, so either iPhone or WP7 would be great options. BlackBerry 6 is also a great option, but like iPhone and apparantly WP7, it too is AT&T only at this time.

  3. Dave Barnes says:

    “Taiwan-based handset makers unwilling to invest in WP7

    Taiwan-based handset makers have shifted R&D investment to Android for 2-3 years and now most of them are unwilling to invest in Windows Phone 7 (WP7) because Android has a large existing global market share and development potential, and is an open platform whereas WP7 demands a license fee, according to the makers.

    The makers include Foxconn, Compal Communications, Pegatron Technology, Qisda, Inventec, Inventec Appliances and Arima Communications. Few have profited from the production of Windows Mobile smartphones. As Microsoft is unlikely to reduce WP7 licensing rates, maybe only 2-3 of Taiwan’s handset makers will engage in WP7, the sources pointed out.

    HTC may take up as much as 70-80% of the global WP7 handset market, followed by Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics, the sources estimated.”

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