Friday, March 19, 2010

Will Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series Bring Focus Back on End-User?

Software behemoth Microsoft is usually not the company that gets top-of-the-mind recall when someone mentions smartphones. Particularly, in the post-iPhone era, Microsoft's foray into building software platforms for smartphones has been turning into an eminently forgettable chapter. And it is not just mindshare, the numbers speak for themselves. Gartner has recently published its 2009 handset market share figures, and Microsoft's slide is evident. The company slipped from its third position in 2008 to fourth behind Symbian, RIM and Apple, accounting for only 8.7% of all smartphones shipped globally.

Microsoft appears to have recognized the precarious position that it is in, one bordering on irrelevancy in the market for a mobile operating system. And in a manner which is very un-typical of the company, Microsoft chose to tackle the problem head-on with its launch of the Windows Phone 7 Series, which despite being a mouthful, packs a punch. While Microsoft has take a completely different and bold approach to the design of the OS, it is more interesting to see the impact that Microsoft can have on the overall smartphone ecosystem, that increasingly appears to be to shaping up as a bubble that I had earlier alluded to, one dominated by an inordinate focus on mobile applications.

The smartphone market has been in a phase of hyper-attention (and strong growth too, I must add) for the last couple of years. More so with the significant attention that is being paid to applications and their ever-increasing download numbers, particularly from the Apple Store. This overwhelming focus on applications has meant that every player in the telecoms and handset space, and their neighbor, has an app store. However, increasingly, the discussion appeared to be veering so much towards applications, that the overall user experience and a primary focus on the end-user was probably lost along the way. While Apple offered a highly engaged audience for mobile developers, Android with its open approach promised to unshackle developers from the restrictive rules of Apple's vertically integrated ecosystem. Phone launches were accompanied by significant noise on how many applications that users can download. More worryingly, the primary target market for smartphone vendors appeared to be developers and how to bring them aboard. The implicit assumption has been that users will flock to the platform that has more applications. Take the recent announcement of the Wholesale Applications Community from the grand alliance of 27 mobile operators and device vendors which was clearly aimed at attracting developers onto a platform that they control. And this thinking is increasingly becoming more prominent. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal story suggests that the recent purge of risque apps on the Apple store might get developers to abandon ship and move to Android. Like most of the focus in recent times, the end-user is completely missing from the picture. The singular focus on developers is too hard to miss.

I am in no way denying the important role that developers get to play in the smartphone ecosystem. Indeed, I'd attribute the strong success of smartphones as a category to a potent combo of killer apps + high carrier subsidies. However, that should not be reason for any one stakeholder in the ecosystem to upend the consumer's position.

It is in this context that I find the Microsoft approach to a mobile platform refreshing. The UI in itself has eliminated the need for users to jump between applications. While it might be a tiny change in the overall context, however, I view that as indicative of the consumer returning to the forefront. It represents a design where the end-user takes precedence over all other stakeholders. Microsoft's presentation at the MWC has been remarkably bereft of a focus on applications. In fact, the company has gone on to the extent of not disclosing much info for the developer community, reserving it for a separate developer-focussed event.

Microsoft's focus on the consumer, and this time the enterprise category, with exchange, sharepoint and office functionality in-built is likely to work in favor of a significant proportion of enterprise users. In the smartphone space, players including Apple and Android vendors have targeted this segment as an after-thought. Driven by the idea that enterprise consumers can be a profitable proposition, multiple vendors and carriers have tried to push through smartphones into the enterprise, but haven't seen real great successes against the likes of RIM. However, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 arguably holds the strongest potential for enterprise adoption, thanks to its native feature-set.

Microsoft has, over the years, shown that it has vision when it comes to desktop computing, user interfaces and the like; and this launch certainly proves that they have the potential and capability to boldly think out of the box when it comes to mobile platforms. However, it remains to be seen if this vision can be translated to execution. But as far as I am concerned, I believe Microsoft has already made its contribution in changing the course of the smartphone industry. By bringing the focus back on the end-user, it is forcing its current competitors to acknowledge and act. And in the long-run, despite the success or failure of Windows Phone 7, this development is likely to have a positive impact on the overall industry. Indeed, there are very few, if any, examples of industries that have thrived by focusing on any element of the value-chain that reads other than end-users.
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