By Brandon Miniman | October 12, 2010 12:30 PM
It was clear by the effort that Microsoft put into the Windows Phone 7 launch event that it’s very serious about being a contender in mobile. Beyond the rental of an entire building, the butlered hors d’oeuvre, and the open bar later in the evening, what was really at play was Microsoft’s ability to use its vast resources to engender support from carriers and OEMs. What other company could put together such a show to announce that its software would be running on nine devices in about 15 countries and on more than 20 carriers? This is undoubtedly remarkable for a platform that is totally unproven. Countless companies are taking huge gambles on Windows Phone 7. That alone may bode well for its success.
Microsoft is spending $400 million on marketing for Windows Phone 7. Its bill so far for developing the software is probably far greater than that. A lot is one the line. Having spent a full day playing with launch Windows Phone 7 hardware and software, I wanted to provide some new thoughts on the chances of a win for Windows Phone 7.
But what is really important here? What will determine the success or failure of Windows Phone 7? Before continuing, what does success mean? Microsoft wants market share. It wants to make money. What really matters in the eyes of smartphone enthusiasts? Let’s say this: success for Windows Phone 7 means that in a year from today, there’s as much excitement and momentum for Windows Phone 7 as there was for Android in 2010. Meaning: compelling hardware, explosive app development, brilliant ad campaigns, and in the end…you want a Windows Phone 7 device, and so do your friends.
Something that Ballmer made abundantly clear during his speech was that Windows Phone 7 is different. And he’s right. But being different for the sake of being different isn’t enough. The experience has to make sense. In particular, homescreen interfaces are extremely important. It’s the first thing you see when you look at your phone; it’s the starting point of anything you do. It must be intuitive, useful, and most of all, beautiful and inviting. With Windows Phone 7, the Start screen is the anti-iPhone, and in a lot of ways, the anti-Android. On an iPhone, the experience is only defined by apps. Beyond simplistic notifications, there is no information that can be had without diving into an application. While veteran iPhone users probably prefer this experience, coming from Android or even Windows Mobile, the iPhone experience feels very disjointed.
Android, on the other hand, takes the extreme opposite approach of the iPhone. The experience can be defined by apps, should you choose, or it can be defined by customizable widgets that reside on a variety of homescreens. If you wanted to avoid jumping into apps entirely, you could fill your homescreens with email, weather, stock, and news widgets.
Windows Phone 7 is a split right down the middle. It gives you one continuous vertical homescreen (which is a refreshing change from the five-plus horizontal homescreens you can have in Android and iPhone) that can display live information (sort of like widgets), but it can also serve as an application launcher. More meaningfully, you can “pin” people, albums, places, playlists, photo albums, and more to your Start Screen.
Here’s the problem. The Start Screen isn’t beautiful, in my opinion. As I’ve said before, it looks half-assed. An Android phone with HTC Sense is beautiful with a big clock and gorgeous weather animation. An iPhone with lots of icons may not be beautiful, but it’s pleasing to the eye and inviting. Windows Phone 7, after carrier customizations and after you drop a variety of items onto the Start Screens, begins to look like a strange multi-colored mosaic of chaos. I don’t find it particularly inviting.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Start Screen experience is that developers can make their own live tiles, meaning that applications can push information to tiles, even when they’re not running. Imagine a live tile for sports scores, weather conditions, twitter updates, and more. At the Windows Phone 7 launch event, I saw none of this. In screenshots, we’ve seen how HTC uses live tiles to push stock quotes to the Start Screen, but no launch device had any third party live tiles. Hopefully we see many lives tiles that are associated with third party apps in the near future.
Third Party Development
Apps are extremely important, and yet they’re not at the same time. Here’s what I mean: people like the possibility of being able to download tons of apps. In fact, it wasn’t until the Android Market had over 50,000 apps did the platform start to gain momentum. The truth of the matter is that most people use about five third party apps on a regular basis. They probably have downloaded a dozen more which never get used. That said, the reasonable smartphone buyer will consider not the total number of apps available, but the availability of useful apps. Apps such as Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, IMDB, and a few game titles are critical apps, all of which will be covered for Windows Phone 7.
There will be around 2,000 apps at launch for Windows Phone 7. This is a really low number, and it reflects poorly on Windows Phone 7′s desirability from a developers point of view. Naturally, developers aren’t going to flock to the platform until they see millions of people with devices. Then again, it may be difficult for millions of people to buy devices if there are only a few thousand apps available. It’s a Catch 22, but in the end, Microsoft didn’t do a good enough job at wooing developers. If it were 2008, 2,000 apps would be terrific, but in the face of the Apple App Store and the Android Market, 2,000 is very weak.
Microsoft and its partners truly pulled through with hardware. The Windows Phone 7 launch devices far overshadow any other smartphone platform launch. Apple had one iPhone, Google had one Android phone, but Microsoft has nine Windows Phone 7s. And they all are special! There’s a device for those that want a huge screen (HD7), a device for those that want a keyboard (HTC 7 Pro, LG Quantum, Dell Venue Pro), a device for those that want a slab device (Samsung Omnia 7 and Focus, HTC 7 Mozart and Trophy, LG Optimus 7), and even a device for those that want loud external speakers on their phone (HTC 7 Surround).
In the hardware department, Windows Phone 7 has scored a huge win. Cool hardware generates buzz more than the software experience at first, because when you’re out at a bar or a party, people take notice to the appearance of your phone before they ask to see the software. If it looks cool, if it’s sexy and sleek, people notice.
Windows Phone 7 on most of the devices I used was fast. Or, I should say, it felt fast. Every screen press you make involves a screen animation that buys the device time to render the next screen. In reality, it may take Windows Phone 7 a second more to launch the browser than, say, Android, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t feel slow. On the Samsung Focus, I was blown away by the responsiveness of the operating system. It was glorious and totally refreshing. Also, the on screen keyboard experience was top-notch, perhaps better than the iPhone, especially on the Samsung devices, which had a very high level of responsiveness.
But a not-so-delightful surprise: on devices with a slide-out QWERTY, the screen doesn’t rotate on the Start Screen, or while in a hub. While this makes sense from a functional standpoint (why do you need to enter text while in the Start Screen or a hub?), it’s going to confuse people and lead them to think that their phone has a bug.
Leadership and Organization
Microsoft is a very, very big organization with a complex structure. It lacks agility. Its attempt to fix this lack of agility for Windows Phone 7 is to have greater control over the end-user experience by mandating hardware requirements and being very strict in terms of how third parties can change the software (read: they can’t).
But don’t let these requirements fool you: Microsoft still has a bloated structure of organization. This became clear to me when Joe Belfiore, one of the guys in charge of Windows Phone 7, said something to this effect while on stage “And we’ve heard from customers that one of the most requested features is copy and paste. This feature wasn’t a part of our development cycle, but we’ll be offering this feature in an update to Windows Phone 7 early next year.” How could a feature so fundamental as copy and paste not be included in the development cycle? It’s because to change even something seemingly small about Windows Phone 7 requires the involvement of many people and many parties. It would take too long. This late in the game, the OEMs have the RTM copy of Windows Phone 7. It’s baked and done until there’s an update to the software next year.
I’m not sure how much of a hand Steve Ballmer has in the creation of Windows Phone 7, but it seems that he doesn’t understand the product completely. In fact, in a recent appearance on The Today Show (at 2:10), Ballmer suggests that the Photos Hub can stream updates from Twitter. That’s false. Sure, I might be splitting hairs here, but Ballmer is the face of Microsoft. If he can’t be 100% accurate about his product on national television, what is that saying?
And there’s some other weird stuff going on, none of which may be significant, but it just seems strange. While at the launch event, I heard Windows Phone 7 referred to as many different things by Microsoft employees. I heard Windows 7 Mobile, Windows 7 Phone, and Windows Mobile 7. That combined with the fact that just eight months ago, it was Windows Phone 7 Series, one can’t help but wonder who is making these extremely important naming decisions. Also, we learned that Windows Phone 7 doesn’t support external storage, and yet it does. Overall I feel like Microsoft is making stuff up as they go along. In an industry as dynamic as this, it’s understandable that they’ll want to change course as need be, but it comes across as lack of confidence in the product if the company says something, then does another.
Windows Phone 7 is not for power users. Power users want copy and paste, HTML 5 and Flash support in the browser, fast-app switching, real removable storage, deep interface customization, control over whether email attachments automatically downloads, a global inbox, universal search, Twitter integration, and so on. The list is long.
But do the power users matter? In reality, they represent a tiny fraction of the smartphone-buying population. But power user adoption is important to evolve a platform and to drive innovation, especially from third parties. There’s also the early adopters that buy first, then tell their friends whether to buy or not. We’ll have to see if there are any Windows Mobile and Android-style hacking possiblities for Windows Phone 7. All eyes are on XDA.
I’m a realist. I’m not an Apple fanboy because I use an iPhone, nor am I a Microsoft fanboy because I have a deep history with Windows Mobile devices. I’m looking at Windows Phone 7 from the top down as the Editor-in-Chief of a smartphone news and review site.
I came away from the Windows Phone 7 launch event feeling a little bit more positive about the prospects for success for the new platform than I did before the event, but not by much. The launch story is as good as can be…they’ve got the hardware, they have the reach, they have the money ready to deploy on marketing. But there’s still so much missing from the story here, and it feels like Microsoft is improvising along the way.
I think that a lot of people are going to sit back and wait to see what second-generation Windows Phone 7 hardware and software will bring, as is the case with any new technology. Will the early adopters provide enough momentum to keep the wheels moving? If not, no one is going to care about Windows Phone 7 a year from now.
You tell us. Are you buying a Windows Phone 7 from the crop of launch devices?
P.S. Too bad they didn’t just go with Photon =D.