WinMo hasn’t caught any breaks recently… the latest version of the operating system is just a minor improvement on what came before, all of the main competition has implemented technology such as capacitive touch displays (e.g. finger touch) that is built into the OS, the next version of the OS is terminally late, the application store was late to the platform, etc. On top of all that “snapdragon”, Qualcomm’s newest and most powerful mobile chipset is getting deployed mostly on competitors’ OS where speed and intense new graphic experiences rule and where it appears many at Microsoft had hopes that this chipset would help to dramatically improve the flailing perception.
Of course all is not lost; HTC (arguably Microsoft’s best friend in the hardware business) created a beautiful if not large phone in the HD2 with all of the bells and whistles that aren’t in the current phones. HTC however has spent a lot of their own time and effort on WinMo not only in pushing the bounds of the hardware (e.g. by implementing a capacitive touch display) but also by including “Sense UI” which is an almost complete shell of the standard interface. Both of these were absolutely necessary since the standard interface for WinMo is dated, not suited for touch based interactions (most of the controls are too small) and is overly complex!
The real issue for WinMo is that was designed as a general purpose computing platform capable of doing whatever the developer envisions as long as it fits within the generalized UI framework and the generalized functionality of the device. Thus every road leads to the mediocre center unless an extraordinary effort is made to create a new experience. HTC had lead the way, but Sony, Toshiba and Samsung have also followed to some extent by creating new UI on top of the OS. For Apple, RIM and Android (to some extent), this is an unnecessary activity which saves these OEMs a large amount of expenses.
Does it have to be this way? Unfortunately if the OEM wants to differentiate their product, they will want to customize the interface and offer specific applications to create value-add then this requires some level of a generalized platform on which to do this. Think of it this way, in the ideal situation, Microsoft provided the plumbing for a city, most of the buildings and some blue-prints for how to build the city. But Microsoft had to go a little bit further and create an example completed city, so that others could see how it was done. Unfortunately the task of “creating a new city” from the blueprints is just too hard for most and thus you get the generic example over and over again. Some OEM/ODMs have been able to follow the blueprints to add a little bit of functionality here or there and to provide a new veneer, but it’s mostly superficial.
But there’s yet another complexity… the carriers. There’s a not insignificant cost for supporting a new handset and when the handset is highly customized, the cost is obviously increased since some commonality between handsets can be lost. This of course leads to attempting to standardize on phones either from specific OEMs who have created an experience of their own or on generic devices that all share the same user interface.
This is a problem of perception – an iPhone is an iPhone is an iPhone; just as all Blackberries or Palm devices are virtually the same from an OS perspective. The only real OS comparison for WinMo is Android since like Microsoft, Google only creates the OS and not the particular phones on which it is implemented. As more OEMs create more devices based on Android, there will be greater differentiation in the operating system as a result. The core difference WinMo and Android is mostly around the infrastructure “plumbing”. WinMo is much more general purposed and robust compared to Android (which is really just the Dalvik Linux distribution with a special Java Runtime application environment). However the Java functionality that is built into Android actually allows for rich graphic interactions to be created more easily plus there are fewer built-in features in the operating system so each of those areas are tightly built and relatively modern. In addition, for many developers, Android is sexy since its new, open source and being distributed by everyone’s darlings – Google.
So can Microsoft ever hope to regain in this space? Yes, but it’s a long road that will require a lot more partnerships with OEMs and ODMs to create excitement, innovate and capturing the OEMs (and carrier) requirements into the overall development of the Windows Phone project (rather than bolting them on afterwards). In addition there needs to be a more cohesive story to the press, bloggers and analysts that really highlight the hard work that is being involved and what it means to the Microsoft’s partners and not just to Microsoft since unlike Apple, Microsoft is just one piece in the overall handset solution.
If you’re interested in competing or steering a course through this space or want more details about the particulars of what’s necessary; feel free to contact me and we can discuss how I can help out.