One of the things we do pretty often on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast is speculate -sometimes wildly-on what combination of factors might effect change in the wireless world. Sometimes that’s doom-and-gloom discussion -“what perfect storm of failures could take down Apple?”- but more often we focus on the positive. Because as vibrant and ebullient the tech world usually appears, the fact is that a lot of companies aren’t doing well.
These are companies we like; many of them helped shape the smartphone revolution, and others were there before it even got rolling. Some of them, like Microsoft, aren’t necessarily doing poorly– but they have a long way to go to get to where they want to be. So we like to speculate about what these companies need, or what confluence of events might help, in order to succeed. Then we like to make off-color jokes that push the limits of the “clean” tag, which we then have to take out in post-production. It’s fun; you should listen.
Windows Phone, though it’s gained some ground recently, is frequently the subject of these charitable “what if” festivals. As Joe Levi and Jaime Rivera have reminded us recently on the air, nearly every member of the Pocketnow team was introduced to smartphones thanks to Microsoft hardware. Windows Mobile-powered PocketPCs started molding the world of the smart device over a decade ago, and dominated the industry in utility and brand recognition for years. So there’s a lot of history there, and a lot of sentimentality. For those who grew up with Microsoft in their pockets, watching the new Windows Phone platform’s interminable struggle to gain market share over the past two years has been frustrating, to say the least.
The good thing for Windows Phone is that it’s overcome a lot of hurdles, especially in its latest jump to version 8. The platform now supports faster processors, higher-resolution displays, and it runs on hardware people actually want to own. Manufacturers like HTC and Nokia have thrown more effort into their Windows Phone designs than ever before, and the OS now shares a kernel with its larger, beefier sibling, Windows 8. More crucially, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 also share an interface paradigm, the tile-based Metro/Modern/Windows 8 Store Style UI … and it’s this commonality that we’ve spent some breath on in the last few episodes of the Weekly. That’s because it might play a substantial role in helping to finally push Windows Phone into relevance.
There are two schools of thought with regard to this possibility, and we’ll address the more-optimistic one first.
The idea behind Windows 8 fueling additional Windows Phone 8 sales is simple, and it has to do with familiarity. The theory is that as customers upgrade their desktop computers to Windows 8 and get comfortable with its new interface, seeing the same array of tiles on a mobile device will be less a jarring “what the hell is that?” and more a familiar return to comfortable surroundings. That’s not a synergy the current family enjoys; the Windows Phone interface bears zero resemblance to Windows 7, Vista, or Windows XP, which together enjoy a dominance of 91% of the desktop computer market.
The theory goes that when the new unity of design settles in between desktop and mobile, Windows Phone 8 will sell in higher numbers. That’s based on the belief that people, by and large, like unity across platforms. And that’s borne out somewhat by the aforementioned Windows Mobile, which featured a “Start” button in both its PocketPC and Smartphone incarnations, exploiting consumers’ familiarity with Windows 95/98/2000/XP. It’s also supported by the actions of companies like Apple, which decided to employ essentially the same UI on its tablets as on its smartphones. As much as we sometimes gripe about it, that’s an approach that’s really worked out well for Cupertino.
This assumes, of course, that people want the same interface on their mobile devices as they enjoy on their desktop computer– an assumption that’s certainly not universally applicable. That’s where the counter-argument comes in.
Take me, for instance: I like my interface paradigms to be insulated. My current daily-driver setup is Mac OSX for the notebook, Android Jelly Bean on the tablet, and (soon) Windows Phone 8 on the smartphone. As a tech enthusiast, I’m perhaps a poor example, but I’m not alone.
It also assumes that people are still buying desktops in great numbers, which is definitely no longer the case. Most folks agree that people are replacing their notebooks with tablets at an increasing rate.
But the tablets making up that sales rush aren’t just running iOS and Android; as more and more Windows 8 devices flood the market (and based on our hands-ons at IFA, there are a ton on the way) the “tile effect” will spread across the landscape.
Between desktops, third-party tablets, and the Surface, Windows 8 is a very public product for Microsoft, and the tile-based design language is a hugely visible part of it. Even the company’s new corporate logo reflects the Modern UI, so aggressive is the push to unify the company’s aesthetics. So whether it happens on the desktop or on the tablet, people are going to know, if they don’t already, that tiles = a Microsoft product. And that awareness will inevitably translate to Windows Phone 8. Whether that’s ultimately a good or a bad thing for the platform remains to be seen, and it will be determined by how well and how quickly Windows 8 matures.
If you ask me, the newfound interface unity between the desktop and smartphone versions of Windows can do nothing but good for Microsoft. Backed up by its high-profile desktop companion, Windows Phone can finally stop going it alone, slogging away in a vacuum as it tries to overcome consumers’ inherent suspicion of something new. The mobile version of the Modern UI will cease to become a frightening portent of “new and frightening,” and instead come into its own as a welcome extension of the OS a user remembers from home and the office. That may be an old-school -or even an outdated- approach to selling smartphones, but it’s certainly better than flying without a wingman. I think there’s enough mileage in the benefits of the unified UI, working in concert with carrier subsidies and high-profile hardware partners, to push Windows Phone into double-digit market share by next summer.
Whether I’m right or wrong, two things are certain: Microsoft isn’t going to give up on Windows Phone in any event, and we’ll keep speculating on Redmond’s prospects every seven days on the Pocketnow Weekly. Join us for the next episode, and drop a comment on this post in the meantime letting us know what you think about the relationship between Windows 8 and Windows Phone, and the prospects for the platform’s future.