Foley on Microsoft

Is Microsoft on the Right Path with Windows Phone?

It has been almost a year since Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7. In that time, the 'Softies have released four OS updates. There are 25,000-plus apps available in the Windows Phone Marketplace and dozens of different Windows Phone-based models from several carriers -- with more to come, especially as Nokia begins cranking.

So why do so many industry watchers, developers and potential customers consider Microsoft's smartphone strategy to be half-baked?

Before I go on, I should note that I'm not in this camp. In June, I decided to take the Windows Phone plunge. I dumped my trusty feature phone and went, cold turkey, with an HTC Trophy 7 on Verizon. Microsoft didn't have to win me over with a charity challenge to get me to switch. I've been using the near-final release candidate build of "Mango," the latest Windows Phone 7 update, since late July. I'm a happy Windows Phone customer, in spite of the fact that I have fewer apps from which to choose than I might if I went with an iPhone or Android phone.

While I'm quite satisfied with my Windows Phone, I do have a number of qualms about the Microsoft Windows Phone strategy. There are choices the 'Softies have made with the platform that I may not love, but I sort of understand. (Example: Allowing carriers to delay rollouts of new OS updates for months on end, in the name of "testing.")

There are other choices Microsoft has made that I find worrisome (as a customer) and confounding (as a Microsoft watcher). A prime example is the company's decision to focus on consumers and gamers almost to the complete exclusion of enterprise customers in an attempt to make up for the lack of consumer focus with Windows Mobile, the predecessor to Windows Phone.

Another exhibit in the worrisome category: the Microsoft Windows Phone launch strategy. When Microsoft finally took the wraps off its completely revamped mobile platform back in October 2010, the Windows Phone 7 OS wasn't really ready. The result? It was a launch that should've been acknowledged as a soft or beta launch, at best. The first-generation Windows Phones 7 hit the market without basics like copy and paste and third-party app multitasking. In many countries, the Bing and Zune functionality was -- and still is -- crippled and partially or totally nonfunctional. The first updates to the phones, especially Samsung handsets, went badly because Microsoft allegedly didn't realize the phone makers had added components to the platform that broke the update processes Microsoft put in place.

Speaking of updates, another Windows Phone decision that gives me pause is the update cadence: The Windows Phone team is staffed heavily with a number of former Windows developers, managers and testers. You can see this as either good or bad, depending on whether you believe all OSes with "Windows" in their names are created equal. The Windows Phone team has made it clear that the plan is to deliver one major phone OS update a year. Compared to desktop Windows, that's downright agile. Compared to Apple iOS, it's glacial. Yes, a lot of Apple updates have been minor fixes or patches labeled with new version numbers -- but since November 2010, Apple has rolled out iOS 4.2, 4.3 and 5.0.

And don't get me started on version numbers, a sore subject in the Windows Phone world. Mango -- the Windows Phone 7 OS release that should have been version 1.0, but which Microsoft is labeling as 7.1 -- runs on Windows Phone 7.5 handsets. Do the sales folks in carrier stores, many of whom are already not the biggest advocates of Windows Phone-based devices, really need one more reason not to recommend them?

Microsoft has been mum on Windows Phone end-user sales figures, but it hasn't disputed claims that it made less than $600 million in fiscal year 2011 from mobile. Windows Phone has a long way to go to catch the iPhone and Android in the smartphone space. But as Microsoft has demonstrated with the Xbox, the brass doesn't mind spending like crazy -- and waiting for competitors to stumble -- if that's what it takes to gain the lead.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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