Microsoft Xbox One: Problem Solved or Major Gaffe?

Last night Microsoft announced that it had changed some of its policies around its forthcoming Xbox One game console that had generated considerable ire in the game console community.  Most notably, Microsoft eliminated the requirement that the console be always connected to the Internet. That requirement and other “features” had created great fear in the gaming community that Microsoft was going to quash the secondary market for its console games, requiring users to buy new games and prohibiting them from sharing their games among friends. I won’t get into the details of what they announced and what changed here — you can Google that — but it’s shocking that Microsoft could get something so terribly wrong that they had to reverse course in less than a week.  Let’s examine possible scenarios:

  1. Microsoft could have really believed this was a good move.  We’re moving towards an always-on environment and Microsoft is not alone in that belief. Just the other week Adobe announced that it would no longer sell packaged versions of its Creative Suite, selling it only by subscription online.  If this is the case, Microsoft somehow managed to miss a few things.  First off, the use profile of a game console is different than the use profile of a high-end business-oriented software suite.  Adobe’s move in no way was a watershed moment.  It was an early move but this vision is not yet universal and so Microsoft’s forcing it early was not well received.  Moreover, if this was their goal, their value proposition for it was, shall we say, lacking.  “Hey, in an always on environment we can deliver you all these neat capabilities.  The first ones require you to use our heretofore optional paid online service and we’re also going to regulate if not eliminate your ability to share and sell games but hey, this is the future.”
  2. Microsoft was trumped by Sony. After Microsoft’s announcement, Sony announced details around their PS4.  PS4 is $100 cheaper and had none of those draconian features that Microsoft proposed.  If Microsoft thought Sony was going to follow their lead, they were badly wrong.  Sony not only offered a solution that had none of Microsoft’s downsides, it did so at a price point $100 cheaper.  Sony not only didn’t follow Microsoft’s lead, they quickly parodied Microsoft‘s sharing restrictions. My son observed that “13 million views had to sting.”
  3. Microsoft thought people would like this. I’m sure they’ve got all sorts of focus group research that said “we really like your direction.”  Maybe they tasked their PR agency with “do a survey with people who will find this strategy palatable.” The sample size was perhaps 17.
  4. Microsoft was planing a “new Coke” scenario. I know this one is really cynical but maybe Microsoft anticipated the reaction and this was done on purpose.  This is a strategy Facebook has used in the past.  Announce something so over the top that the market reaction will be negative.  You can then backpedal, saying “we’ve listened to the voice of the customer.” In this scenario, you assume customers are going to balk on any changes so you purposefully announce something over the top so that when you back up, you’re still ahead of where you were before you made the announcement.  I’d consider this a plausible scenario except for the back that Microsoft basically backpedaled to where they were before they made the ill-founded announcement.

You might say “no harm, no foul.” Microsoft backpedaled fast enough that by the time the consoles come on the market, closer to the holiday season, this will all be forgotten. I believe, however, Microsoft has done itself some permanent damage here.  If you read your license agreements (and I suggest you do…if you suffer from insomnia”, Microsoft (and typically all vendors) reserve the rights to make unilateral changes in their licensing terms. Bottom line, Microsoft has always had the ability to impose these changes on their users, even post-sale.  Nobody worries about these things here because they always think “Microsoft wouldn’t be so stupid as to do something that would slaughter their value proposition.”  Well, now you’re thinking “maybe they would.” Sure, they backed off when it became clear they were getting slaughtered but do you think Microsoft has abandoned the approach or merely postponed driving it into their customers? Losing trust in your vendor is a very dangerous position and Microsoft may just have crossed that line. Maybe by beckpedaling they’ve closed ranks with their user base. But I don’t think so.  This one will be fun to watch.

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Pardon My Disruption: March Edition

I’m a little late getting this post up here — we recorded the session a little over a week ago — but better late than never.  And for the second time in a row, snow interrupted our plans so instead of recording with a live audience at the Stamford Innovation Center, we participated remotely (using Google+ hangouts).  I do need to work on my video skills. Despite having two lamps just out of camera range, my lighting is suboptimal.  Then again, my pretty face is never going to carry the day… :)

For those of you who want to watch the full video (an hour), you can find it here.  This month, we talked about:

  • Yahoo and Marissa Mayer’s work-from-the-office edict
  • Groupon’s CEO resignation
  • The new Facebook feed
  • Microsoft’s EU fine
  • iWatch (we didn’t really talk about this in the video here but I’ve got a few observations)

Yahoo and Working from Home

This is odd, coming from someone who has spent large portions of the last 20 years working from home and who is such a big believer in collaborative technologies, but I totally understand and support Marissa Mayer’s decision to require Yahoo employees to work from the office.  Fundamentally, she inherited a broken company.  I’m a member of a group called the Internet Oldtimers and one of the group’s members described the scenario perfectly.  He said that good people in a bad system become bad people whereas bad people in a good system become immediately evident.  Yahoo had a bad system which encouraged even the best of people to perform at substandard levels.  How do we know Yahoo had a bad system?  Mayer came from Google, as data-driven an organization as I’ve ever encountered, and simply, she went to the data.  It would be one thing if people were working diligently from home but the data just showed another story.  Mayer looked at the VPN logins and quickly discovered that people weren’t connecting to the company’s internal network.  It’s one thing to say collaborative tools enable remote working.  It’s a whole other scenario when your workers aren’t using the collaborative tools!  They didn’t even bother to fake working very well.  Yes, the system was broken.  You could argue that this is a draconian step and that it will cost Yahoo in terms of current employees and ability to recruit new staff.  That may be true but the bigger challenge is reorienting the organization and bold, decisive moves are required.  I don’t expect this to be a permanent work condition but until and unless Mayer showed her commitment to a new Yahoo, she would have been merely rearranging deck chairs on the old Yahoo.  I applaud and support the move.

Groupon’s CEO Resigns

Too much of this story has been about Groupon’s ex-CEO Andrew Mason and his polarizing style, his company accounting challenges and his flamboyant resignation (refreshing in its candor). I actually wrote about Groupon over two years ago, questioning their business, and in the intervening time, I think their challenges have only grown larger.  Here are the fundamental problems for their business (and not just theirs, but LivingSocial and many other daily deals purveyors):

  • The deals are not great for merchants.  They’re indiscriminate, send a bad message, encourage “bad” business, don’t help the merchant’s information-gathering and give the merchant almost no control.  Other than that, they’re great. LOL
  • The wrong party is in control.  Deals should be structured, offered and managed by the merchant itself.  You should be able to offer deals whenever you want to whomever you want.  My favorite talking point here is to use the example of a donut shop.  Let’s say you’ve had a slow day and it’s looking like you’re going to have to throw out a bunch of donuts.  Wouldn’t you want to run a deal at the last minute, just in time for the evening rush hour, offering a special? You could make this look like a customer incentive for your best customers instead of the existing model where you’re discounting products/services that your loyal customers have been paying full price for.  You could make this decision at 4 p.m., instead of weeks or months in advance.  You could do this every time your inventory is high instead of once every few months.  This is a fundamental problem of approach for Groupon and its ilk, and not one a new CEO is going to solve.
  • To feed the public market appetite for growth, Groupon moved from daily deals into an adjacent market, Groupon Goods.  I’ll never understand why companies move into businesses that jettison much of what’s attractive in their legacy business.  The great thing about the daily deal business is that you have no inventory.  Your only three cost buckets are technology, marketing, and your sales commissions.  This is a business with minimal risk as you can align costs relatively easily to revenues.  With Groupon Goods, you’re now taking possession of inventory.  If you don’t sell it, you’re stuck with it…or you have to lower prices, cutting your margins.  Before this, Groupon could have been run out of a phone booth.  Your servers were in the cloud, your salespeople were on the phone or on the road, your inventory was totally digital.  Instead of pushing, and fixing, the core business, Groupon went broader.  Big mistake in my mind.

The New Facebook Feed

Facebook is rolling out a new look and feel.  Again.  I wrote about this challenge even longer ago, almost four years back now.  Back then, the challenge was competing with Twitter and its real-time impact.  That challenge remains to this day and we’re now hearing of Facebook’s plans to incorporate hashtags, mimicking yet another Twitter feature.  Facebook is now fighting battles on multiple fronts.  In addition to Twitter, there’s now a battle for approach and design with Pinterest and Instagram.  Yes, I know Facebook now owns Instagram but if you look at Instagram, Pinterest and even Microsoft’s new platforms, you’ll see a more richly graphical approach.  I won’t get into this approach…well, maybe I will, briefly.  I think much of this is eye candy at the cost of value, information and time.  A picture may be worth a thousand words in some contexts, but in a lot of these instances, I’d rather see the thousand words or at least something that conveys greater value than just an image and a text headline.  I think a lot of the motivation behind this approach is to get people to actually click through on something.  More clicks = more opportunities to display ads or at least pump up your metrics.  For the user — at least for me — more clicks = more time to get to value.  I really don’t like the approach.  But Facebook seems to be embracing the approach, whether it’s to increase its advertising footprint or contain Pinterest.  There are laudable goals in the redesign — more easily connect users with the information they want to connect with — but I’m not convinced this is the real motivation or, if it is, that this redesign accomplishes that goal.  But as always, we’re stuck with it.  Expect to see tons of posts from your friends decrying the new approach…until we accept that this is the way it’s going to be.  Oh well.  At least maybe they’ll fix the multi-columnar approach, the logic of which I still can’t figure out.

Microsoft’s EU Fine

Microsoft was fined $731 million by the European Union.  Why? Because it didn’t fully implement its deal to open up the browser market to competition, a deal struck in 2009.  At that time, Microsoft had a near-dominant share of almost 80% of the desktop market.  We all know what’s happened since then. Despite not keeping up its bargain, Microsoft’s share has steadily decreased and it now represents only about half of the desktop market and, if you factor in mobile, considerably less than half.  In fast-moving markets like technology, somehow markets do a better job of adapting to competitive situations than governmental remedies.  I’m not saying that the EU’s fine was misguided — they have to enforce their agreements — I’m just saying that the EU sanctions were, and continue to be, largely ineffective.  Fining someone for four year old behavior (several generations in Internet time) while failing to act on current issues is, unfortunately, what we’ve come to expect from governmental bodies.  I’m not advocating that they go sue Google but if they’re genuinely concerned with fostering real competition, going against emerging and existing monopolists with sanctions with real teeth would be much more impressive than what amounts to a (soft) slap on the wrist to a former monopolist.  If anything, this action would encourage me if I were considering a current offense.  If this is the timeframe and scale over which remedies will be extracted, it’s no deterrent at all.

iWatch

Somehow I can’t get excited about this one.  Perhaps Apple’s going to surprise me.  Again.  But I just don’t see an iWatch as the product which is going to reinvigorate Apple’s prospects.  Back at the beginning of the year, I said their big opportunity is the digital home, and I stand by that belief.  Yeah, yeah, the watch market is a $60 billion market.  But if you’re under about 28, you probably don’t wear a watch.  Can Apple make it cool?  Probably.  But the trend is to bigger screens, not smaller, and I’m just not convinced that anyone can make a watch a compelling companion to my smartphone, and make no mistake about it, this will be a companion product.  I feel bad enough when I have to shell out $100 with every new phone for screen protectors, batteries and the like.  Is it that much more powerful to have reminders on my wrist instead of in my pocket?  Perhaps it could be a little more interesting if it incorporates the emerging niche category of activity monitors like Jawbone’s Up.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

What’s perhaps most problematic for Apple is that their time to market advantage may be non-existent.  Apple has had huge market advantages when it has launched its category-defining products, with competitive responses often lagging by a year or more.  Not so with the watch.  In fact, while the Apple iWatch remains merely a rumor, Samsung has come public with its intention to do one, and its indication that it has been working on it for a long time.  While I question how genuine that effort was prior to the Apple rumors, it’s clearly a different world when a rumored Apple product introduction is met by immediate competitive responses, not stunned gasps of “they did it again.”

What’s Next

In addition to these timely news items, we talked about a couple of larger thematic subjects:

  • The “IT-ization of consumers”
  • What’s next, after social, mobile and cloud

I’m not going to get into these here and now — this blog post is already long enough — but i’m going to write at greater length about these topics in the coming weeks.  I identified social, mobile and cloud as my three disruptive trends, over five years ago.  As they begin to coalesce as I predicted, people started to ask me “so what’s next?”  For a long time, I answered that with “more commercialization and better integration of those pillars.”  We still have a long way to go there. But I already see the seeds of the next big transformation which will, once again, change the face of technology and business.  I just love that about this business; it’s never static…even while we all struggle to keep up with the pace of change and have to fight to incorporate new technologies and approaches.  But the next change is coming and I’ll start surfacing that soon.  (If you want a head start on your competition, you know where to find me.)

 

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Microsoft Tries to Derail the Barnes & Noble Juggernaut (!?)

In the legal morass that is Android comes the latest news that Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble, alleging patent infringement.  Think about the surface absurdity of that one.  Microsoft suing Barnes & Noble.  Even The Onion hasn’t contemplated this scenario.  So, what’s really going on here.

At a macro level, here’s what’s happening:

  • These kinds of patent lawsuits are so common that I’ve almost stopped looking at them altogether.  Usually it goes like this:
    • Someone sues someone else.
    • The someone else counter-sues.
    • The two companies exchange patent cross-licensing agreements, usually with one side or the other having to kick in some cash.
  • There’s a slight twist to the whole Android scenario, again though one that’s not uncommon.  Most of these patent lawsuits have focused on Android licensees and not the deep-pocketed Google.  It only makes sense to go after the weaker players, albeit ones with sufficient funds to pony up.

What are all these people suing in the Android space trying to accomplish?  It’s real simple.  If you’re trying to sell an operating system into a market where Google is giving it away, you need to make the OS appear not to be free.  In other words, you may not pay for the OS but by the time you factor in legal costs, your free OS all of a sudden isn’t so free.  Somewhere along the line, Google is probably going to have to ante up to help its partners by resolving all of these patent infringement issues.  It probably means Google’s going to have to write a check.  The good news:  they’ve got $34.9 billion in cash on hand and are printing more each quarter.  So much for the chilling effect on Android licensees.

What’s particularly interesting about the Microsoft/Barnes & Noble case is that presages interesting competition in the tablet marketplace.  Why should anyone be worried about Barnes & Noble or, by extension, Amazon?  The Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader actually runs on Android.  In effect, they’re selling a specialized Android tablet for $249.  How can they do that when the rest of the Android tablet marketplace is horribly overpriced as I’ve recently blogged?  Welcome to the new world of ecosystems and razors and razor blades.  Amazon and Barnes & Noble can sell these devices at low (or no) margin because the economics of incremental margin on the razor blades (books and other digital content) is so compelling and predictable that it pays to seed the market with devices.  That’s another reason why Apple, asides from supply chain efficiencies, can sell the iPad so competitively.  It can count on a reasonable income stream from the AppStore while in the Android space, those margins go to Google.

Yes, I know that the Nook and the Kindle are not general-purpose tablets.  Today.  But the color Nook is pretty darn close.  The Wall Street Journal’s Brett Arends even recently told readers how to turn their Nooks into tablets.  He overstated his case to make a point:  Barnes & Noble can do this easily and likely will.  If not, they deserve to follow Borders into bankruptcy.

Netting it out:

  • Google is likely to have to share some of its profits with its ecosystem to cover legal exposures.
  • Google is likely to have to share some of its app store revenues with partners.  Otherwise, the situation with competing app stores (already a fracturing standard) is going to get (much) worse rather than better.  They need to do this one quickly.
  • In other words, Android tablets need to get cheaper and Google will have to share its app and advertising revenues to make that happen.
  • Players like Barnes & Noble and Amazon can become strong players in the tablet marketplace because they have the economic model and ecosystem to compete with Apple.  Selling hardware alone is not much fun these days, and is only going to get worse.

The New Math: When 5 + 4 = 1 (Nokia and Microsoft Get Together)

The rumored partnership of Nokia and Microsoft has come to pass, as Nokia announced today that it is going to embrace Windows Phone as their primary smartphone platform.   I’m not going to go into a deep analysis of the keys to success.  That will be well covered in the news today.  The big one obviously is how many platforms will developers support?  iPhone, of course.  Android is on the cusp of becoming 1a to Apple’s 1.  A must-do platform.  In certain markets (e.g., enterprise), Blackberry is 1b or at least a strong contender.  HP made its WebOS move earlier in the week, with some interesting value propositions, linking computers, tablets, phones and peripherals.  What would make Windows Phone compelling for developers?

Nokia has had its own set of challenges.  While they long said they were the world’s largest Smartphone company, they were kidding no one.  Once the iPhone came out, they were yesterday’s news.  Once Android gained momentum, they were in full denial mode.  They missed key trends (like Americans were buying clamshell phones) and took years to rectify the shortcoming, never to regain market position.

So now Nokia and Microsoft are partnering.  Not surprising, considering where Nokia’s new CEO, Stephen Elop came from.  (Microsoft, if you don’t already know.)  It didn’t take him long on the job to conclude that Nokia’s own efforts were failing and ultimately failed.  Nor did it take him long to conclude that his best strategic bet was Microsoft.  Given his background and their mutual desperation, it didn’t take long to conclude this deal.  In some ways, it’s almost stunning in its rapidity.

I just want to ask one simple question:  when have  two waning market players ever combined together to create one market-winning entrant?  I was sitting in a session yesterday at New York’s Social Media Week next to IBM AR star Mauricio Godoy and I asked him to come up with any examples of where this had worked.  Interestingly, he came up with a couple of situations.  Involving musical artists/groups.  I’m not sure they were entirely compelling but at least they had merit worth discussing.  But neither he nor I, nor anyone else I’ve asked this question to, could come up with a compelling instance where two fading businesses combined to reassert market leadership or even competitiveness.

Combining my problems with your problems sometimes solves both our problems.  More often, however, it increases complexity and amplifies both of our problems.  Friend and fellow analyst Bob Egan Tweeted this morning “Execution has been Nokia’s shortfall yet now it seems they are taking on even more execution complexity. Was hoping for simpler more focused.”

Often in business conversations, you hear people say that they’re looking for situations where 1+1 is greater than 2.  Here we have a situation where 5+4 is supposed to produce 1 or 2.  Now I admit that I’m just old enough that I missed the “new math” in high school.  (My sister, two years younger, learned it.)  But I don’t see the math working.  And in a market so dynamic and fast-moving, combining these two entities, neither of them known for their speed, may just hasten their mutual demise.  (I would, however, love to hear of successful business combinations in this vein in the comments.  Anyone?)

Microsoft: Putting the Inmates in Charge of the Asylum

I received a Tweet the other day from a former client, the always-insightful John Taschek, VP of Strategy at Salesforce.com, asking for my take on this news story about a rumor that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is going to make significant management changes, elevating people with engineering backgrounds at the expense of those with marketing backgrounds.  There are so many ways this is just troubling when it comes to what ails Microsoft.  Let me outline just a few of them:

  • Putting engineers in charge of anything is generally a bad idea.
  • If bad marketing is Microsoft’s problem (and it’s one of them), putting engineers in charge of things does not solve that problem.
  • Microsoft’s biggest challenges are generally neither related to bad marketing nor stifled engineering.  They’re related to bigness and the innovator’s dilemma, as expressed by Clayton Christiansen.  (I find it personally exciting that this is discussed in the Wikipedia article on “disruptive technology.”  While I wasn’t using the term in 1995 when it was first ascribed by Christiansen, it has been my career since 1979 so I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to him for giving definition to my life.)

Those of you who like typical blog posts can stop now.  Those of you who know me, however, realize that these call for further discussion.

So why is putting engineers in charge a bad idea?  The best way I can explain it is through an old joke.

Talking frog

A man was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said: “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a beautiful princess.”  He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again and said: “If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will stay with you for one week.”  The man took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket. The frog then cried out: “If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I’ll stay with you and do ANYTHING you want.” Again the man took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket.
Finally, the frog asked: “What is the matter ? I’ve told you I’m a beautiful princess, that I’ll stay with you for a week and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me ?”  The man said, “Look I’m a software engineer. I don’t have time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog is cool.”

Engineers are brilliant at what they do.  Understanding what users want is not one of the things that they’re brilliant at.  I’m often asked why, in a coming up on 32 year technology career, I’ve never lived in the Bay Area.  Oh, I’ve visited there a lot, almost certainly over 100 times in that time span.  The way I always explain it?  Silicon Valley’s hometown newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, I say, has technology on the front page of the paper five out of seven days.  My hometown newspaper, the New York Times has technology on the front page of the paper five times a year, twice after an Apple product introduction and three other times…when something goes catastrophically wrong.  Engineers are great at figuring out what’s possible.  Marketers, at least good ones, are supposed to be great at figuring out what users want.  The intersection of the two is where magic is made.

Steve Jobs is not an engineer.  Steve Wozniak was Jobs’s original technological guru.  Jobs has a remarkable understanding of what consumers want, usually before they know they want it themselves.  Steve Ballmer is a marketing guy from way back.  Putting the engineers in charge is perhaps the most damning thing he could ever do.  I have known SteveB since 1987 and have been a staunch defender of his for a long time, even when it wasn’t popular, both early in his reign and lately.  If this is his strategy for returning Microsoft to its former glory, well…Steve, you just lost me.

So, what is Microsoft’s bigger issue and how do you solve it?  Microsoft does not lack for technical excellence nor innovative ideas.  The Kinect is a great example of what Microsoft can do and the business rewards it can result in.  It’s also instructive in how Microsoft works.  Microsoft has been doing research about alternative input approaches for decades.  Yet all we had in the market was the keyboard and mouse.  Oh yeah, Microsoft did tablets too.  We see where they took that.  But I digress.  How is it that the Kinect came to market?  You can bet that if Nintendo hadn’t invented the Wii, the Kinect might not have seen the light of day for another decade.  Microsoft was threatened.  Someone else had asserted market leadership and, with it, sales success.  Only then was Microsoft able to identify technologies it had that could return the Xbox to sales competitiveness.

This has been Microsoft’s response for way too long.  When threatened, they innovate…or at least get competitive.  The browser is another great example of that.  Threatened by Netscape, they came up with the competitive Internet Explorer (and used anti-competitive measures to bring it to prominence).  Almost every subsequent browser innovation from Microsoft has been spurred by, or copied from, alternative browsers.

I am aware of way too many Microsoft products and technologies that were quashed or watered down, not because of marketing, not because of engineering, but because of internal politics.  This is not a recent phenomenon but has been a Microsoft “sickness” for over a decade.

Witness Microsoft’s response to the cloud.  They have been reasonably aggressive when it comes to server-side cloud initiatives with Azure.  That’s because Microsoft’s upside is larger than its risk.  Yes, self-impact is a concern but if they can further damage Oracle/Sun, IBM or Salesforce, well, then Microsoft’s upside potential is great and the strategic beachhead is important.  Whither, however, Office for the cloud?  Oh, yes, they’re getting around to it.  They’re hardly, however, aggressive about it.  Why?  Because Office is one of the great cash cows in the history of technology and they’re in no rush to gore that cow while no one else is really threatening them.

What do you think we’d have now if Steve Jobs were in charge of Microsoft and Office?  Do I really even have to answer that question?

No, Microsoft’s problem isn’t that the marketers were in charge and now the engineers will come in on their white steeds to save the day.  Engineering and marketing have to work in concert, driven by a compelling vision that unifies the two, often warring, groups, espoused by a leader with the strength of character to make these groups work together when their individual priorities and incentives are not necessarily aligned.  Apple does that beautifully.  Google does that occasionally well.  Throwing a bone to John, who motivated this post in the first place:  Salesforce does that pretty well too.  Microsoft?  Not so well.

There was a time when Microsoft faced a challenge from the Internet.  Almost 16 years ago now, Bill Gates issued a famous memo, a call to arms.  That is what Microsoft needs now.  A definition of what it is and, more importantly, what it needs to be.  Again, if this were Apple, Bill Gates would make a triumphant return, leading the company back to its former glory.  But Bill has other priorities on his mind and the world is a better place for that.  Is Steve Ballmer the man for that task?  I honestly don’t know.  And that’s perhaps the most damning statement of all about Microsoft.  I don’t know.

Windows Phone 7: Microsoft’s (Considerable) Challenges and its Surprising Opportunity

As I discussed in my last post, mobile is a space Microsoft needs to win if it’s to remain as relevant in this decade as it was in the last two.  I’ll never underestimate Microsoft’s power and, more importantly, its stubbornness/tenacity in battles it must win.  However, there are so many moving parts in this space and so much potential for Microsoft’s efforts to go awry that it’s very hard for me to develop any enthusiasm for Windows Phone 7, launched yesterday.

Let’s just look at some of those challenges:

  • User interface.  Microsoft looked at the iPhone and unlike Google, which said “we should copy that,” instead said “we can do better than that.”  Trying to out-interface Apple is a daunting proposition.  Has anyone done that?  Ever?  And in any event, is this the time it’s going to happen?  I’ll give Microsoft credit for realizing that perhaps the market didn’t need yet another iPhone clone.  However, its approach is actually at odds with how it has succeeded on the desktop.  The desktop and to a large extent the iPhone and Android worlds have succeeded because they’re open platforms upon which application developers can unleash their creativity and users can freely and equally access that creativity.  Instead here Microsoft has said “we know what activities you do with your phone and we’ll make those more prominent.”  If this is actually a static set of activities common across a wide enough range of users, I’d actually applaud that approach.  However, I don’t believe it’s at all a static set of activities and I think there’s sufficient variation from user to user that this approach will generally suffer.  Sure, if you’re a Zune person, great for you.  Both of you.  But I don’t think many users are thinking “wow, this iPhone is too tough to use; I wish someone would simplify my choices for me.”
  • Does Microsoft’s approach make it harder for application developers to achieve prominence?  With Microsoft controlling so much of the initial user experience, applications are relegated to a less prominent position.  This might discourage application creativity in areas Microsoft considers “core,” like pictures or social networks, and might hurt application developers whose applications might otherwise be considered core by users but are relegated to less prominence on WP7.
  • How many platforms can the market support, anyhow?  It’s clear Apple is a long-term survivor.  I don’t say “leader” because ultimately that’s not their business model.  They don’t play in high volume, low margin spaces and make no mistake about it, the smartphone market is going to be high volume in very short order.  Blackberry is positioned to be a survivor as a niche solution.  Their investments in corporate-relevant infrastructure mean that they can be a trusted provider for key scenarios even while other providers infringe on them at the margin.  That means that Android, HP/Palm, Nokia/Symbian and Microsoft are left fighting for markets that can only support one or two of those parties.  The decision may actually rest on more than just smartphones, which leads us to our next discussion.
  • Whither the tablet.  Android needs rework to adequately support tablets.  HP is going to move Palm into a variety of Internet-connected devices, including tablets, printers and more.  What’s Microsoft’s tablet strategy?  I’ll need more time looking at WP7 to assess whether this is a viable UI for tablets or whether it’s more likely to be some evolution of Windows not-Phone 7.  If, however, WP7 is not a tablet or other embedded device OS, that constrains the market opportunity for WP7 and thus its attractiveness to application developers.
  • Velocity.  Microsoft’s track record at getting operating systems out the door is, well, spotty.  (I’m feeling charitable today.)  The velocity in the phone market is a radically different dynamic than on the desktop.  Upgrade cycles are measured in weeks and months, and certainly not years.  Is Microsoft going to be able to maintain that pace and do so in a way that doesn’t jeopardize product quality.  Their track record is sobering.

However, Microsoft is in an interesting position when it comes to the carriers, especially here in the States.  The carriers have a love/hate relationship with Apple.  They’d love to have the iPhone.  They hate that Apple gets to dictate all of the terms.  With Google, it’s more of a wary situation.

While Google is more complicit with the carriers than Apple, the carriers are (rightly) suspicious of Google’s motivations.  If Google isn’t exactly making money licensing the core platform, then what’s in it for Google?  Clearly Google views this as an essential step in moving its ownership of the search space on desktops into a mobile world.  Thus, at some level, Google’s economic rationale and that of its partners are competitive and/or misaligned.  That doesn’t make for a great partnership.  Google competitors all around are trying to drive stakes into that misalignment with these patent lawsuits that further the economic risk elements and point out some of the inequities in the relationship (I get the benefit, you assume the risk).  That said, unless we’re about to change the patent landscape and head to Armageddon like situations, these things usually resolve themselves with small amounts of money changing hands.  I actually think that should one of the involved parties pursue these patent matters to full resolution, it will be counter-productive and will in fact hasten the time when we see patent reform up to and including the elimination of software patents, many of which, to this outside observer, seem, well, patently absurd.

So where does this leave Microsoft?  To the carriers, Microsoft may actually seem like the most benign of the three partners.  At least they understand Microsoft’s licensing model and appreciate the fact that Microsoft was their complicit partner on earlier Windows Mobile platforms (even while such complicity rendered the platform in need of its very replacement).  Again, I’ll write about my dislike for the carriers in a future posting.  They still hold to a desire for control that is unhealthy for the ecosystem and for us users.  But given that they hold on to these notions, their desire to partner with someone who will cow-tow to their mandates is strong.  If Microsoft’s willing to be that partner, all may not be lost for them.

Of course, that means that a Microsoft victory could be very bad for the rest of us…

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