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4 Obstacles Windows Phone 7 Mango Must Overcome To Succeed

First, a non sequitur, but there's no way we're not going to mention your editor's favorite professional sports franchise, the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, today. This party was 39 years in the making, and it's going to rage for a while. (Vancouver, on the other hand, needs to cool it.)

Anyway, while we're discussing winners, let's talk about Windows Phone 7. See? We told you it was a non sequitur. Well, that's not entirely true. WP7 is not a winner. It's very much a loser for the time being. But that might not always be the case.

IDC certainly believes in it, and, much more importantly, so does RCP Editor in Chief Scott Bekker, who makes a very solid case for why the Mango update to WP7 will set the mobile operating system on its way to greatness. If there's anybody we at RCPU trust almost as much as we trust Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, it's Scott Bekker.

Having seen Mango demoed at Tech-Ed, your editor is a fan of the new OS -- just not enough of a fan to actually go out and buy a device that runs it. (How many people will fall into that category?) And therein we find the problem for Microsoft and its snazzy new mobile OS: There's a lot more to succeeding in what is essentially a consumer market than just coming up with a good product. In fact, the sizzle is usually just as important as the steak, and Microsoft doesn't tend to sizzle.

The way we see it, WP7 could eventually be a serious competitor to Google's Android OS and Apple's iOS. But it's going to have to get past some big obstacles first, and four of them are these:

  1. Retail indifference. Evidently, there are some serious issues with retailers not selling Windows Phones, or with them steering customers toward Android or iPhone. Why that's happening, we're not sure, but we wonder whether Microsoft or its hardware partners need to come up with some sort of incentive plan. A great product nobody sees will never make it off the shelves.

  2. As with any consumer product, marketing and branding will be huge in this race. More than huge -- absolutely critical. Microsoft is way behind Apple and Google in that area and has frankly never been all that good at advertising for consumers. A phone can have loads of features and apps, but if it looks uncool in the office or at a party, there's a large swath of people who won't buy it.

    We at RCPU believe that one of the things that makes iOS such a strong competitor with Android is the cool factor. The iPhone is a great device, but it's limited by the fact that it's an Apple device, as all Apple devices are. (Oh, go ahead and get mad. You know it's true. Apple makes great stuff, but open it is not.) The difference in apps is not that great these days (and getting smaller all the time), and Android is available with much better deals from a larger number of carriers on a wider range of devices. Android itself isn't uncool, but it's no iPhone. The iPhone is still the standard. There are still some consumers who use "iPhone" the way they use "Google."

    Will Windows Phone 7 ever approach that level of brand recognition? Microsoft hasn't been able to do that in arguably 20 years now. Nothing about WP7's current campaign suggests that it will anytime soon.

  3. IDC's prediction of huge market share for WP7 is predicated mainly on the idea that the OS will have huge uptake in places where the iPhone and Android don't already dominate -- largely in the developing world. It's our take that people have overestimated markets in developing countries for years.

    China and India, for instance, deliver a huge chunk of users these days, but they still don't deliver the market power a lot of analysts and firms thought they would by now (from what we can tell). Change is slow in places where many people are still relatively poor by Western standards.

  4. Radical departure doesn't always work. WP7 looks nothing like iOS or Android; the latter two systems basically look like each other. There's a lot to the WP7 interface that's extremely appealing and will get better with the Mango release. But how conditioned are consumers to think that iOS and Android are just what phones look like?

    Sometimes, radical departure from the norm -- think of the Wii, or even Kinect, here -- is a blockbuster. Sometimes it's a flop. As a kid, your editor had a video game system called Intellivision. Its graphics were far superior to those of the super-popular Atari system; its games were more sophisticated, and it delivered an experience that was arguably well ahead of its time. But there was one problem (in your editor's view, anyway): It didn't use a joystick.

    Players controlled Intellivision games with a sort of remote control that featured a wheel not unlike the one on the original iPod. It was, frankly, a little hard to get used to, but with some practice it delivered more accuracy and subtlety than a joystick, which was Atari's default controller.

    The problem was that for gamers of the day, particularly casual gamers, the joystick was just how people played games. Sure, the wheel thing might have been a better controller on a better system (we said might have), but it wasn't normal. It wasn't familiar. The joystick was.

    Both Atari and Intellivision eventually tanked, of course, but Atari outlasted its competitor and (we feel pretty sure, without actually looking it up) outsold it, too. WP7 could face the same kind of problem: The more people get used to the icon interface on their phones (and tablets), the more that interface will just simply be the way phones work. WP7 might actually offer a better experience, but if it's not familiar -- and, let's face it, Microsoft has a way to go in catching up to its competitors in terms of market share -- users won't feel comfortable with it. WP7 could end up being the Intellivision of smartphone OSes.

Your editor became a die-hard Bruins fan in 1993 after visiting Boston for the first time. In the years that followed, the franchise declined steadily before flat-lining a few years later as the worst team in the NHL. Microsoft is far from flat-lining (very, very far), but it is arguably in decline. But like the Bruins, Microsoft can still pick itself up in the mobile market and make itself a winner again.

Whether the obstacles it'll face will prove to be as tough as the Montreal Canadiens, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Vancouver Canucks remains to be seen. And whether Microsoft can overcome its four obstacles the way the Bruins fought through the playoffs is another question altogether. Really, though, the takeaway from this entry is that the Boston Bruins are 2011 Stanley Cup champions. That's the important thing here.

Posted by Lee Pender on June 16, 2011


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