Did Microsoft Repeat the Mistakes of the Past with Windows Phone 7?

November 4th, 2010

Ahead of the introduction of nine smartphones sporting the spanking new Windows Phone 7 operating system, the reviews are starting to come in. Whether that’s good or bad for Microsoft is an open question, but some serious shortcomings have already surfaced, and it reveals the major flaws in the company’s approach to product development and marketing.

So the new interface, emphasizing tiles over icons and folders, has gotten extremely positive ratings for the ease of navigation, or at least until there are actually decent numbers of apps available on the new platform. Ditching the errors of the past, mostly trying to replicate the traditional Windows interface on a tiny gadget, was a good thing. No doubt about it.

However, Microsoft’s leadership clearly hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the past, meaning they do not comprehend the sad truth that being almost as good doesn’t cut it in a hotly competitive market. This is not the PC OS wars being replayed.

In those days, it was mostly Microsoft and Apple, with the lesser players tossed by the wayside, except, of course, for the various iterations of Unix. With a major focus on the business market, Microsoft kept promising that yesterday’s and today’s Mac OS features would appear in next year’s Windows upgrade (whether true or otherwise). So there was no sense switching, they said, because Microsoft would take care of you.

For Windows, it worked, more or less, although the sales of new Macs these days are growing much faster than those of most PC makers. Apple has always emphasized consumers, but they are looking more and more towards the enterprise. This is particularly true as corporate executives bring in new Macs and demand that their IT departments live with it. The PC is stagnating, other than needed replacements for older hardware. Netbooks are faltering.

The problem is that Microsoft never learns from their mistakes. Take the Zune music player. Microsoft emulated Apple’s closed ecosystem, double-crossing the company’s PlaysForSure partners.

To be perfectly fair, the Zune, with which I’ve had brief encounters, seemed decent enough in most respects. It was certainly a credible alternative to the iPod, but Microsoft always seemed to be stuck in the rear view mirror, as if they took an older model, spent so much time duplicating the fundamentals, and adding an extra bullet point feature or two, that a new model was already on the market. What about predicting what next year’s model should be?

The public decided they didn’t want to get with the “Social,” Microsoft’s clumsy effort to make the Zune seem relevant to young people. So while the Zune theoretically remains in the product catalog, it hasn’t gone anywhere. Oh, yes, Microsoft is evidently working on a sync app that will let the Zune, and a Windows Phone 7 device, sync with iTunes. Nothing wrong with that.

As to those Windows Phone 7 gadgets, it appears Microsoft has one reasonably clever idea, which is to have a separate camera button. That saves a few seconds if you want to grab a quick snapshot of a family member, special event or, perhaps, even something in the sky that appears to be a UFO. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Unfortunately, the operating system itself appears closer in concept to iOS 2 than iOS 4, or the forthcoming iOS 4.2. There is, for example, no support for cut, copy and paste, which Microsoft promises will appear in a software update next year. Forget about multitasking for third-party apps, though it does appear you’ll be able to listen to music from the Zune app while doing something else. And don’t get me started about the slightly awkward name.

As I said, Microsoft is still using the rear-view mirror.

The problem here is that Microsoft isn’t persuing the smartphone market from a position of strength. The same was true for the Zune, and Windows Phone 7’s fate may be similar. Don’t forget the Kin smartphone, which Microsoft killed within weeks of its highly unsuccessful introduction.

The smartphone market today has delivered great sales for Apple, Google’s Android partners, and RIM. The first two are the hot tickets, and Microsoft is a serious also-ran. When someone enters a consumer electronics store, or one of a carrier’s factory outlets, they will have loads of terrific gear with which to compare a Windows Phone 7 product.

Worse, Apple has over 300,000 selections in the App Store. Google has over 100,000, although some will argue that far too many are minimalist apps that do nothing more than play ring tones or make unsavory sound effects.

Regardless, big bad Microsoft is resuming this game with something that’s not only incompatible with previous Windows smartphones, lacks some of today’s key features, and supports a mere 1,000 apps or so. It’s going to be a chicken or egg situation, where developers won’t commit resources to a new platform unless they get a big dose of persuasion by Microsoft, or see potential profits.

When it comes to profits, the biggest gains still come in the Apple App Store, despite all the competition.

This isn’t to say Microsoft is doomed to fail yet again with its latest and greatest smartphone OS. They do have loads of existing business customers who might prefer a product that offers superior support for Exchange and Office products. That could provide a core of Windows Phone 7 support that will keep the product going, but when it comes to competing with the larger players, that train may have already left the station.

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8 Responses to “Did Microsoft Repeat the Mistakes of the Past with Windows Phone 7?”

  1. Blad_Rnr says:

    It baffles me why Microsoft wants to go after a market that delivers a mere $10-15 license per handset. Why? Apple is in it because they can make a lot more money by actually building the phone/OS themselves. Microsoft will never accomplish with Win Phone 7 what Apple has done, in terms of revenue or profits. Maybe they think they have to be a player in the smart phone market in order to be hip and trendy. But the reality is that they will never be as successful as Apple when it comes to actually making money on their Win Phone 7 licenses.

    • HammerOfTruth says:

      @Blad_Rnr, Microsoft has no direction that’s why. They have HTC to test whether they can compete against Android and keep Google from eventually overtaking them in the desktop OS market. HTC is going to find out how much it really cost them to use Microsoft’s patents to protect them from Apple. Microsoft can’t execute their mobile strategy, just look at the Kin. It had a few neat ideas, but it didn’t have any direction and confused Verizon about what type of plans they should sell with it.

      The only way it could really survive is if they somehow make it possible for an IT department to support a whole network just with using a Windows phone, and that ain’t gonna happen.

  2. DaveD says:

    One would think that Microsoft with all that brain power and money that they would be wearing the top crown of innovations. It is hard to come up with any original concepts that became successful. The few products that are came from copying ideas from others. Lately, their run of making successful copies have slowed down considerably.

  3. Peter says:

    Make no mistake, WP7 will appeal to Windows enthusiasts – and we all no there are plenty of them. Currently, they are either on Android or sitting by and waiting for the Windows offering. Most Windows fans are not entirely comfortable with the whole Google open platform thing to begin with – and they really only have one post to rally around – their hatred of all thing Apple.

    Keep in mind as well that the Windows phone isn’t going head to head with Android on Verizon – not initially at least. Is Verizon feeling a bit burned over the Kindle fiasco? This should prove interesting.

    As Android continues to splinter it may become the platform for happy hobbyists – much like Linux is. We can already see that Android users are not too enthusiastic about paying for anything beyond the hardware, and they love to tinker. The problem is that – as with Linux – the hobbyists don’t exist in vast numbers.

    The Windows phone may be a bit “last year”, but it is good enough to draw attention to the failings with Android.

    Nothing like a three-way fight to keep things interesting. And we all know that Apple loves a good fight.

  4. SteveP says:

    Gene; I don’t mean this as a put down, just an observation. I find it incredibly funny that you – and many others, to be sure – are constantly referring to the number of apps available as such a positive thing when only a few years ago you were putting down all the Windows users for using there claim that there were more applications available for Windows.
    It was meaningless then and it’s meaningless now. Most of the applications in that 300.000 are trash. Just as most of those Windows apps were.
    I wish people would get over this.

    • @SteveP, It’s always a matter of quality as opposed to quantity. That’s why the 300,000 apps on the App Store are better than the 100,000 Google apps. Not because there are three times as many, but the quality, because of the stringent approval process, is almost uniformly higher.

      In the Windows platform, there’s a lot more variety, and a lot more junk. There are maybe 30,000 or more on the Mac. But the key is whether the app you need is available for your chosen computing or mobile platform. If not, forget about it. But right now, applications under Windows Phone 7 are minimal. You aren’t buying into it for apps, at least not until there’s more support. So there have to be other benefits.


  5. Al says:

    DaveD, Microsoft was never about leadership in innovation. It’s not even about marketing prowess, although I’ve heard some pundits/bloggers say that MS is a marketing-driven company. No, Microsoft is all about monopoly power, the acquisition, perpetuation and extension thereof. Throughout their history, their ‘winning moves’ have never involved the introduction of leading-edge technology in a world-beating product. Their winning moves, instead, all have to do with out-negotiating, outmaneuvering, and outspending both their business partners and competitors so as to accumulate more monopoly power.

    Winning move No. 1: Negotiate a deal with IBM to supply DOS for the IBM-PC but without yielding exclusive rights to IBM.

    Winning move No. 2: With DOS left open by IBM, cultivate the growth of the clone makers to erode whatever clout IBM has in the PC industry, then maintain a chokehold on the clone-makers by imposing coercive contractual terms that prevented Microsoft’s software competitors from preloading anything in the clone PCs. This killed all of MS Office’s competition.

    Winning move No. 3: Negotiate with an inept John Sculley for a license that basically gave away the keys to the Mac GUI.

    Throughout all these winning moves, Microsoft’s products have always been “just good enough” to make customers not balk when Windows gets rammed down their throats.

    Now compare MS’s winning moves against Apple’s:

    1. Introduce a revolutionary new user interface in the Mac.

    2. Introduce the iPod and iTunes which takes over and reconfigures the portable music player market.

    3. Introduce a revolutionary new smart phone in the iPhone.

    4. Introduce a revolutionary new computing model in the iPad.

    Apple’s winning moves are all about product. Not market manipulation and control.

    • DaveD says:

      @Al, All very good points, fact-based statements. Thanks for refreshing the memories. It triggered the Microsoft Antitrust case where the federal government won.

      Apple has never forced any potential customers to buy their products.

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