Windows Phone 7 Marks The Dawn of Holistic Microsoft
For the last couple of years, Microsoft have struggled with mobile phones. Along with Palm, the company was one of the early pioneers of the modern smartphone, yet their most recent 6.x operating system has looked distinctly old-fashioned in the face of ever more ferocious and quick-footed competition. On one hand the likes of Apple and Google have gobbled up consumers with a mixture of flair and powerful functionality, while on the other the success of RIM’s Blackberry line has even made things difficult for Microsoft within the enterprise sector.
All this has only added credence to the increasingly popular notion that, as a company, Microsoft has become unwieldy and slow to react to industry shifts. Although it remains one of the most profitable businesses in the world (largely thanks to a 10-year-old operating system consumers and businesses remain wary of ditching), its association with ‘me-too’ business strategies and uninspired products has left it lagging when it comes to popular mindshare. But the Xbox 360, and to a lesser extent the Zune, have been successful (if unprofitable) experiments into using smaller, manoeuvrable, more focused teams to drive the direction of the company. Both the 360′s online service Live and the recent Zune HD are industry leading in terms of innovation and, in stark contrast to Microsoft’s current mobile offerings, represent thoughtful, consumer-focused products.
The announcement of Windows Phone 7 Series on Monday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona therefore represented a pivotal moment not just in Microsoft’s mobile strategy, but in their direction as a company. Like the Zune and Xbox 360, this new operating system marks an explicit move from the software-only focus that has brought them so much success in the PC space, and onto a trajectory that encompasses the kind of holistic control most readily associated with Apple. Gone is the loose and broad licensing of 6.x, replaced by strict hardware spec minimums, a consistent look and feel, and prerequisite button layouts. Microsoft also delared partnerships with a whole plethora of manufacturers including Dell, Garmin-Asus, HTC, HP, LG and Samsung. Most significantly though, like Google’s recent move to play a more centralised role in the design and distribution of their Android-toting Nexus One handset, there is a distinct sense that Microsoft is for the first time positioning itself firmly at the centre of the mobile Windows experience.
This strategy is a pretty big gamble for Microsoft. As a business that has made the lion’s share of its cash through a hands-off attitude to development and licensing, Win Phone 7 is an ideological change that puts the company in the firing line for all aspects of the customer experience. It is also a clear statement of intent that Microsoft is ready to go toe-to-toe with Apple and Google at a game those companies have, over the last year particularly, made their own.
Refreshingly, the aesthetic and functionality of Microsoft’s new software seems to reflect the bold nature of this gamble. Windows Phone 7 Series is a canvas of Tron-like block colour and lines. Riffing on its contentious Zune HD operating system, the look Microsoft has chosen is startling, slick and entirely their own. The design undeniably stands out in a market otherwise saturated by iPhone-cloning visual tropes and utilitarian icon lists. There’s a lot of large text, gestural input and consistent interface metaphors which will initially be unfamiliar to most users. But at the very least, the new mobile division seems to have its philosophy right – as Joe Belfiore repeated several times during Microsoft’s MWC press event, ‘the phone is not a PC.’
But time will tell whether Microsoft are simply too late to this heavily populated and ruthless game. With users increasingly entreched within ecosystems that offer apps galore, there is now a financial concern in a phone beyond merely the remaining months left on a carrier contract. One thing is clear though, Windows Phone 7 Series represents the work of a new Microsoft, a Microsoft that is finally as relevant and interesting as its upstart competition.