You know those manuals that ship with consumer electronics products, the user guides that no one ever reads, despite the fact that they’re prominently stamped “Read This First?” The next paragraph is one of those. So if you’re like most users, or their internet equivalent, the “first” commenters, go ahead and skip all this. Head right on down to the comments section and vent your fury at the headline and title image alone.
I’m a big fan of the Windows Phone platform. A Samsung Focus was my daily driver at one point, and I really missed the Nokia Lumia 900 when I had to send my review unit back to AT&T. When Windows Phone 7.8 touched off a wave of Microsoft backlash in the blogosphere, I was one of the ones calling for reason and restraint. Even so, commenters were quick to attack my position based only on the headline, which some saw as click-baiting. As tends to be the case with underdog platforms, Windows Phone carries with it a very vocal fan base. So when the current topic came up as a possible editorial piece, I was hesitant. But I decided to go ahead with it, on the assumption that at least a quarter of the readership would avoid the urge to skip this paragraph. This one right here. The one where I’m saying this isn’t a hit piece, or a cheap shot at the world’s third-place mobile platform.
What it is, though, is a serious question. Is Windows Phone 8 doomed to be too late to the party, never reaching the same scale as iOS or Android?
I want to briefly look at this from both sides of the argument, starting with the FUD.
Too Tardy: The Case For “Yes”
Upon its release in the third quarter of this year, Windows Phone 8 will be facing a world full of challenges, possibly more serious than Windows Phone has ever encountered.
Apple’s iOS 6 will either be on the market or very close to release, featuring some disappointments, but also a lot of new and exciting features. Even if it’s not everything I’d have wished for, you can bet iPhone and iPad users will embrace iOS 6 with open arms, if only for the new, improved Siri.
On the other side of the platform divide, Android users will have started receiving their update to 4.1 Jelly Bean, which we know very little about but will hopefully feature some significant enhancements to cope with Apple’s recent iOS 6 salvo. While I don’t have much faith in Google to release the update in a timely fashion across all devices, we’ll probably be seeing it on flagship phones and tablets by that point- if nothing else, this will capture still more market share for Android, further fueling its growth.
Facing these two Goliaths is a platform whose past performance has been frighteningly underwhelming. In the twenty months it’s been on the market, Windows Phone has failed to reach even a two-digit market share. That’s charitable, actually: as recently as the end of the first quarter, Gartner reported that Microsoft’s mobile products comprised less than two percent -only 1.9%- of the global market. Granted, that was before Nokia’s Lumia brand campaign kicked into high gear, before the Lumia 900 even hit the market, and before rumors of success out of China, dubious as they sounded, gave WP7 fans renewed hope. But it’s still a whole lot of bad news, and shaky foundation on which to build a new platform. “New” is the operative word here; despite its user interface, and backwards-compatibility with existing WP7 apps, Windows Phone 8 features a completely different architecture built on the “Windows Core.”
Point is: that’s a lot of variables. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and there’s not a clear record of success to justify a lot of faith in the platform going forward.
Right On Time: The Case For “No.”
But I don’t think it’s too late for Windows Phone 8.
Did I say that of Palm, then HP, in the troubled days of webOS? Absolutely. But in the former case it was born more from a sense of hope than business acumen, and in the latter case it was because no one knew just how deeply HP had devolved into insanity. I still lack the qualifications to accurately predict business maneuvers, preferring to keep my focus on products rather than their manufacturers, but like everyone else, I enjoy speculating. I don’t necessarily think IDC is correct in its assertion that Windows Phone will overtake iOS by 2016 -that kind of long-term forecasting is bold at best- but I do think Windows Phone has a bright future ahead of it. Here’s why I think Windows Phone 8 has a solid chance in the marketplace.
- Apps. Microsoft’s app arsenal started off slowly, but a concentrated effort to woo developers and ever-increasing platform awareness have finally resulted in a very significant milestone for Windows Phone: the six-digit hurdle has finally been cleared. As I discussed in my “AT&T Heavyweights” video comparing the Lumia 900 and the HTC One X, I’ve never had too much trouble finding titles in the Windows Phone Marketplace, but clearing 100,000 apps is good press, and an important indicator of health for the platform.
- iOS Fatigue. The coming version of Apple’s mobile operating system will be its sixth iteration, and the UI design hasn’t changed much at all since 2007. This stagnancy first got under my skin way back in 2009, and it, combined with the ubiquity of iPhone hardware, is bound to start alienating customers looking for more flexible means of “thinking different” in a different way. Windows Phone’s Metro UI is nothing if not different, and its recently improved customizability is sure to catch eyes that before may have been satisfied with the existing array of choices. And Android’s success at the hands of OEMs like Samsung and HTC has opened consumers’ minds to alternatives: people accustomed to one choice will always select that one, but those whose eyes have been opened to multiple alternatives are more likely to survey the landscape more thoroughly. (Oh, very well … [Citation needed].)
- Windows 8 Integration. Windows is still the most popular desktop operating environment in the world, by a huge margin. When Windows 8 starts approaching that point of market saturation, anything that shares its core -like Windows Phone 8- is bound to be swept up alongside it in the success slipstream. This might not have been quite a sure thing in the world of “old Windows,” the stodgy workplace tool of yesteryear, but Windows 8 is cool. It’s adaptable. It’s on Surface. It’s going to get a lot of attention in the coming years, and it’s my bet that most of that attention will be positive.
- Beautiful Hardware. Microsoft has recently shown a remarkable willingness to ditch some of its old attitudes and business practices, a capacity for adaptability that I frankly didn’t expect. One of these surprises came in the form of its close partnership with Nokia, which hasn’t necessarily resulted in the best results for the Finnish company -indeed, some are speculating the company is already done for- but which definitely gave us the most beautiful Windows Phone hardware we’ve seen yet. Combine that with Microsoft’s OEM-angering, precedent-defying choice to build its Surface tablets on its own, and it seems pretty evident that, though they deny it now, the day will come when Microsoft builds its own Windows Phone hardware. And it stands a good chance of turning out beautiful.
- Bullheaded-ness. Over the course of my youth, I was confronted by a quotation every time I opened the refrigerator. My mother had clipped it from a magazine of some kind and tacked it onto the freezer door, ensuring its words would be burned into my brain every time I went for a glass of Sunny-D. The quote read: “Sometimes success comes overnight, but more often it is the prize earned by stubborn commitment and a defiant refusal to settle for less.” IN my opinion, that’s where Microsoft is right now. The start may have been slow and the road bumpy, but the company has sunk far too much money and effort into Windows Phone to watch it spiral down the drain at this point. It’s going to continue throwing money and resources at the platform, forcing it into a successful position. That shouldn’t be necessary with an OS as “beautifully different” as Windows Phone, but sometimes it takes a lot of time and hard work for something unusual to gain acceptance- no matter how beautiful it is.
Agree? Disagree? Just read the headline and need to say something? Two out of three of those types are welcome to comment. Guess which ones I mean!
Microsoft 1Q2012 market share source: Gartner
Windows Phone app-count graphic source: GigaOM