In this context (and in this market segment instance), Microsoft is like IBM in the 1980s and 90s -- an industry titan trying to regain relevance despite what once seemed like insurmountable technological, market, leadership, and financial advantages. IBM re-invented itself as a services giant. Microsoft may reinvent itself as a cutting-edge leader in smart phone technology (among other things).
Things look bleak for the underdog from Redmond ...
Microsoft is in the midst of rebooting its phone offerings with the Windows Phone 7 Series (WP7S) technology and brand (see the Windows Phone site here; the WP7S developer site here).
Looking at the main developer page of WP7S, someone who had been asleep for the last few years would be shocked at how the company has moved to a position of reacting to the market. Two items stand out:
- The WP7S phones seem a lot like Apple's iPhone. WP7S apps will be screened by Microsoft and the device itself will be loaded and synced using specialized PC software (relying on the Zune desktop program). The official ways to get apps will be through this method -- it's unclear if there will be "backdoor" to get apps on the phones (see this Engadget article for more details on the Marketplace and how the phones will operate). Will this result in blogger/commenter backlash due to inevitable app rejections/delays as Apple has been? Microsoft says the approval process will be much more transparent from Apple's, but a rejection is still a rejection. Will it result in the desire for a segment of users to "jailbreak" their WP7S phones? While the answers are not known yet, it looks like Microsoft is adopting many Apple strategies and will face many of the issues that its rival must deal with today.
- The social networking feeds highlighted are all non-Microsoft properties. On the main WP7S page, there are links (badges) to three social networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Pragmatic? Absolutely. Does it say something about Microsoft's inability to dominate, or even have significant share of the social networking market? Yes. Hopefully, for Microsoft's sake, the success of the WP7S platform will be much better than its social networking efforts to date.
Love, hate, or feel ambivalent about the new user interface (UI) for WP7S phones and the hardware limitations (approved form factors), the new platform, with its abilities and limitations, demonstrates exactly how much Microsoft is following mindshare leaders like Apple and Google's Android. Despite limited numerical success in penetrating the smart phone market, Apple has forced nearly everyone to follow its lead. With better, second-generation Android phones, Google is now helping dictate the market's direction. Will the WP7S platform become a leader, too?
Microsoft may yet turn its phone platform misfortunes around, but it is clear that the company, once assumed to dominate smart phones with Windows CE/Mobile as it did with Windows on the desktop and server, is currently one of the weaker market players. That's great for the competition, but not so great for Microsoft. The company must rely on its own offerings to attract followers and deal with the impact of the wildly successful iTunes Store and the open allure of Google. That doesn't mean Microsoft is doomed, but it is not an envious position for a company that once seemed on the verge of dominating mobile experiences.
Add to this reactionary pattern in the phone market the continued need to move towards standards and standards-adhering offerings, and things look very tough for Microsoft in terms of control of their own destiny.
... but imitating the competition isn't lame -- it's smart business
Fanboys and girls of every company and brand like to point out their favored company/product is all about innovation, but there really isn't much in the tech world. Apple is usually held up as the poster child of new thinking, but the interface for the Mac was originally created by Xerox. Its iPod was a better digital player than many others that had been on the market for years. Even the iTunes software was not originally made by the company -- its core was bought from a small developer. How about the Sony PlayStation (PS1 and 2)? They were better, not totally new, consoles from what was on the market. Yes, the interface for WP7S phones is different compared to many of the iPhone-knockoff devices, but the text and hub strategy changes the phone's look and feel, not reinvents the smart phone experience (and its consumer appeal is far from known despite pro-WP7S bloggers and commenters).
Pure innovation is rarely the way to create great products. Something innovative takes years to achieve success simply because it is so radical. Usually, seeing what has worked and making it better leads to the best products. Only so many true innovations, like the original mouse, can claim to be amazingly special and to radically effect a huge chunk of the industry. The rest? Solid improvements and advancements. Evolution over revolution. Knocking Microsoft for WP7S looking like Apple offerings is silly. Criticizing the platform if it doesn't work or feel better is legitimate, but praising it for doing things right should trump any discussion about copying, reacting, or other negative comments.
Effectively starting over with WP7S looks like Microsoft weakness to some, but it is actually an excellent sign for the company and the market. Competition is good for buyers and users -- consumers and IT -- and good for competitors. Even Apple lovers should be happy for Android phones and the forthcoming WP7S products -- they will only make Apple engineers and marketers work harder to deliver better solutions.
A WP7S phone may or may not be for you, but everyone will benefit from Microsoft taking the leap.