Commentary: Windows Phone Destined for Failure?
Today is the official debut of the new Windows Phone family of handsets. The HTC HD7 for T-Mobile and the HTC Surround and Samsung Focus, both for AT&T, are now on sale. Too bad that Microsoft's Windows Phone is almost certainly destined to fail: the world could really do with it being a success, if only to provide an alternative to Apple's iOS and Google's Android smartphone software. That's not to say that Windows Phone will be an epic fail in the mold of, say, Windows Vista or Windows Mobile -- two Microsoft operating systems that were pretty much universally despised by all who had the misfortune to be yoked with them. In fact most reviews of Microsoft's new phone operating system have been quite positive. After all, it's new, it's fresh, and it takes a whole different approach to mobile device computing, putting data rather than rows of app icons at the center of the user experience. But here's the problem. Or rather, here are the three problems. First, Microsoft is playing catch-up. Let's face it, Microsoft is not an innovator, and it's always arriving late to the party just as the party animals are leaving for the next, more exciting one. Microsoft's Zune music player provides an almost text-book example of this: when Apple introduced the iPod, Microsoft had nothing. By the time Microsoft launched the Zune, Apple had moved on to-flash based iPods. When Microsoft caught up with that, Apple had introduced touchscreen iPods. And when Microsoft introduced the touchscreen Zune HD, Apple had moved on with the introduction of mobile apps. Nothing significant Microsoft did with the Zune was ever ahead of the iPod. On the contrary, it was always one step behind, desperately trying to catch up. And so it is with Windows Phone -- the software doesn't even come with cut-and-paste yet, for goodness sake! Microsoft has promised cut-and-paste functionality will be coming to Windows Phone in a future update, but the fact that it's not there at launch just illustrates my point: the software is already behind, trying to catch up with iOS and Android. And of course there's one thing you can be quite sure of -- by the time Microsoft figures out how to do cut-and-paste in Windows Phone, Apple and Google will have added new functionality to jump further ahead, and the whole catch up cycle will start all over again.
Windows Phone for mobile computing or consumers?Second, there's a very big question mark about who exactly Windows Phone 7 is designed to target. The dreadful, dour, humorless Windows Mobile was clearly designed for business drones. That was hardly a success. The Kin was designed to appeal to consumers alone. That was even worse. Microsoft clearly now realizes that business users have a personal life, and vice versa, and there's no mistaking that Windows Phone has been designed for both business mobile computing and consumer use. The problem is that the company has tackled this with all the subtlety of a 0.44 Magnum when what's needed is the soft touch of a Nerf. The new family of Windows Phone 7 handsets are good for work. There's a whole mobile Office hub with Excel, Word and Exchange. And they're good for play. There's Xbox Live and Zune. Both bases are covered, seems to be the thinking. And while this is true, it smacks of "jack of all trades and master of none." If you're not a solid corporate type, are you really going to go for a Microsoft phone with an Office hub instead of an iPhone or some funky Android device? Not unless you were the type of kid that took a briefcase to high school. And if you are, why would you pick a phone with something as frivolous as Xbox Live on it when you are never going to use it, and one with live updating social networking tiles to let you know who is doing what with whom when you almost certainly don't care. But perhaps the key reason why Windows Phone probably won't succeed is because Microsoft doesn't seem to understand the whole point of smartphones. Its current marketing line is "Its time for a phone to save us from our phones ... Windows Phone is designed to get you in and out and back to life. " Now what does that say about Windows Phone? It says that Microsoft has designed if for what it thinks are "normal" people, who prefer real life to staring at their phone.
Which is unfortunate, because most iPhone and Android users are normal people, and the fact is they love immersing themselves in their phones -- that's why they do this so much of the time. It's the reason for the success of the iPhone as well as other smartphones, and the reason that Microsoft has spent the last few years developing Windows Phone in the first place. Having integrated social networking, live updating tiles and all this other clever stuff into their smartphone software, the company seems to be telling us to get a life, not a smartphone. I'm confused. And so, it seems, is Microsoft. That's why Windows Phone looks destined to fail.