You’d be forgiven for thinking that Microsoft was never a major player in the smartphone space. Most people had never really heard of or seen a smartphone until Apple released the iPhone and the market really didn’t heat up until a couple years after that fact. However if you were to go all the way back to 2004 you’d find they were extremely well positioned, capturing 23% of the total market share with many analysts saying that they would be leader in smartphone software by the end of the decade. Today however they’re the next to last option for anyone looking for a smartphone thanks wholly to their inertia in responding to the incoming threats from Apple and Google.
Microsoft wasn’t oblivious to this fact but their response took too long to come to market to save any of the market share they had previously gained. Their new product, Windows Phone 7, is quite good if you consider it on the same level as Android 1.0 and the first iPhone. Strangely enough it also suffers some of the problems that plagued the earlier revisions of its competitors products had (like the lack of copy and paste) but to Microsoft’s credit their PR and response time on the issue is an order of magnitude better. They might have come too late into the game to make a significant grab with their first new offering but as history has shown us Microsoft can make a successful business even if it takes them half a decade of losses to catch up to the competition (read:the Xbox).
More recently though I’ve noticed a shift in the way Microsoft is operating within their mobile space. Traditionally, whilst they’ve been keen to push adoption for their platform through almost any means necessary, they’ve been quick to stand against any unsanctioned uses of their products. You can see this mentality in action with their Xbox department who’s fervently fought any and all means to run homebrew applications on their consoles. Granted the vast majority of users modding their consoles do so for piracy reasons so their stance is understandable but recent developments are starting to show that they might not be adverse to users running homebrew applications on their devices.
ChevronWP7 was the first (and as far as I know, only) application to allow users to to jailbreak their WP7 devices in order to be able to load arbitrary applications onto them. Microsoft wasn’t entirely happy with it’s release but didn’t do anything drastic in order to stop its development. They did however announce that the next update to WP7 would see it disabled, much like Apple does with their iOS updates, but they did something that the others haven’t ever done before, they met with the ChevronWP7 team:
After two full days of meetings with various members of the Windows Phone 7 team, we couldn’t wait to share with everyone some results from these discussions.
To address our goals of homebrew support on Windows Phone 7, we discussed why we think it’s important, the groups of people it affects, its direct and indirect benefits and how to manage any risks.
With that in mind, we will work with Microsoft towards long-term solutions that support mutual goals of broadening access to the platform while protecting intellectual property and ensuring platform security.
Wait, what? In the days gone by it wouldn’t have been out of place for Microsoft to send out a cease and desist letter before unleashing a horde of lawyers to destroy such a project in its infancy. Inviting the developers to your headquarters, showing them the roadmap for future technologies and then allying with them is down right shocking but shows how Microsoft has come to recognise the power of the communities that form around the platforms they develop. In all respects those users of ChevronWP7 probably make up a minority of WP7 users but they’re definitely amongst the most vocal users and potentially future revenue generators should they end up distributing their homebrew into the real world. Heck they’re even reaching out to avid device hacker Geohot since he mentioned his interest in the WP7 platform, offering him a free phone to get him started.
The last few years haven’t been kind to Microsoft in the mobile space and it appears that they’re finally ready to take their medicine so that they might have a shot at recapturing some of their former glory. They’ve got an extremely long and hard fight ahead of them should they want to take back any significant market share from Apple or Google, but the last couple months have shown that they’re willing to work with their users and enthusiasts to deliver products that they and hopefully the world at large will want to have. My next phone is shaping up to be a WP7 device simply because the offering is just that good (and development will be 1000x easier) and should Microsoft continue their recent stint of good behaviour I can only see it getting better and better.
I’ll be honest I had to look over my past posts of Windows Phone 7 to figure out where I used to stand on Microsoft’s latest grab for the smartphone market. Initially I was sceptical, figuring that this was Microsoft’s extremely slow reaction to their competitors gnawing away at their market share. I acknowledged the fact that Microsoft has the power of numbers working for it with masses of developers poised to take advantage of a mobile platform but recognised the fact that if they were serious about the mobile space they’d be invested in it already. Finally I came to like the platform when Microsoft upped the ante with the default feature set, including features for free that their competitors had long been charging for. However after that initial glowing review I hadn’t heard a lot about the Windows Phone 7 had been a rousing retail success nor its dismal failure so I figured it was just going to fade off into obscurity, much like their Kin did before it.
Today however brought the first bit of news that I’d heard about the platform in a long time. Whilst there wasn’t a massive land rush to acquire Microsoft’s latest offering there was a respectable amount of sales:
Sales are ramping well as our reputation is growing for offering users a unique experience and are in line with our expectations – especially when compared to other new platform introductions. With a new platform you have to look at a couple of things, first of all customer satisfaction. As I mentioned before, we’ve seen great response on the complete mobile phone experience.
Another is phone manufacturer sales – phones being bought and stocked by mobile operators and retailers on their way to customers. We are pleased that phone manufacturers sold over 1.5 million phones in the first six weeks, which helps build customer momentum and retail presence.
We know we have tough competition, and this is a completely new product. We’re in the race – it’s not a sprint but we are certainly gaining momentum and we’re in it for the long run
Some quick maths will tell you that 1.5 million handsets in 6 weeks works out to roughly 36,000 handsets sold per day. Whilst this pales in comparison to Android’s 300,000 activations and is a drop in the bucket when compared to Apple’s 230,000¹ it’s still a decent number considering the giants that they’re going up against. Since they managed to release well before the holiday buying period it will be very interesting to see how their holiday sales figures turn out as that will be telling as to how much momentum this particular platform has.
Still though for any developer looking to develop for the mobile world Windows Phone 7 is probably the last platform on their list. Developing for Apple arguably has the best potential for revenue generation from direct sales with Android providing better results from ad based programs and both of them have audiences much larger than Microsoft’s 1.5 million loyal fans. Whilst the barrier to entry might be lower for a long time Microsoft developer anyone really serious about mobile development will take the time to learn a more popular platform. The time invested in learning a new platform is nothing compared to the number of people you’ll be able to reach by developing on something other than Windows Phone 7.
Yet again I find myself back on the fence, unable to say with conviction how I feel about Windows Phone 7. In reality it looks like a solid product and the relatively decent number of sales in its first month and a half of life is definitely promising. However it’s coming to the party about a year or two late with Apple and Google both providing very mature platforms with a large, established fan base. I’d still love it if the platform became popular as it would reduce the amount of work I’d have to do but the harsh reality is that even if it does happen it’s a long time away and they’ve got a long way to go before they’re matching the numbers that Google and Apple have enjoyed for so long.
¹It’s now estimated at up to 270,000 per day, but I couldn’t find a source that states that directly.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was singing high praises of Windows Mobile when I received my shiny new Sony Xperia X1. In all honesty it really was the best Windows Mobile handset I ever had the pleasure of using but towards the end it began to suffer from the same kind of random issues that plagued all my other WinMo handsets that had come before it. The camera app would work only half the time and I was lucky if I could convince it to take video. I had long since foregone the panel interface because of how slow it was when compared to the default and the keyboard started sticking and missing key strokes. Still I couldn’t bring myself to sell or trash the handset and it still sits atop my desk with a fully charged battery, hoping that I find a use for it someday.
Microsoft was obviously privy to these kinds of issues that plagued WinMo users and in February this year they announced that they’d be releasing a new mobile operating system called Windows Phone 7. At the time of the release I was on the fence about it, realising the platform had potential but not convinced it was anything more than Microsoft’s me-too business model. More recently I came to see how Microsoft could employ their giant third party developing force to make WinPho7 one of the dominant players in the mobile space but there’s really no telling if the hordes of Microsoft developers would have any interest in developing for the platform.
Monday saw the final unveil for WinPho7 to the wider public with several handsets on display that the press were allowed to get their hands on. Initial reactions were positive with a healthy hint of scepticism:
As for Windows Phone 7 itself, it feels slick and polished. The interface is fast, the transitions are attractive, and built-in programs like e-mail are a pleasure to use. Anyone who uses a handset is going to want to explore it and learn more about it. If Microsoft can get good positioning in retail outlets, the platform should flourish. However, to get a feel for how well the operating system really works as a smartphone OS requires more time than we had today. First impressions are definitely positive, but it’s going to be a while before anyone knows what the software is like to actually live with.
Indeed going through the numerous posts I’ve seen about WinPho7 over the past 8 months or so it seems like many people feel the mobile operating system feels solid but aren’t really sure if it will catch on. If there’s one thing that Microsoft offers with all its products is deep integration between product families and that’s usually where the true value lies. Previous versions of WinMo might have been tedious for the regular user but for corporate clients they were pretty much spot on. They were beaten to the punch by RIM with the easy email to the phone integration but their competing product, Exchange ActiveSync, is quite comparable now. Couple that with a rebooted platform and RIM’s utter failure to capitalize on the touchscreen phenomenon Microsoft might just be able to claw back some of the corporate market they lost to them.
That’s not the only trick Microsoft has up it’s sleeve either.
iPhone owner’s out there are more than aware of the MobileMe service that Apple provides to its customers, usually as an up sell before you get your phone. For the low rate of $99/year (or $149/year if you have up to 4 people who want it) you get access to some cloud storage and a synchronisation service that keeps all your mail, contacts and photos in sync for you. Additionally you can use the service to find a lost iPhone should you misplace it or if it gets stolen. Microsoft has a competing service, known as Live Mesh, that was really only about files and remote access. Yesterday saw the announcement of a revamped version of this service that in essence replicates all the functionality of MobileMe. The kicker here is that Microsoft will be offering the service entirely gratis to all WinPh07 users, including the coveted find my phone feature that MobileMe is so popular for.
I don’t think anyone saw that bombshell coming.
Still the WinPho7 still has a little ways to go before it reaches its full capability. Whilst Microsoft has gone to significant lengths to drive development on the platform it will be a while before there’s a critical mass of users on WinPho7 to make it attractive to those looking to profit from the mobile space. There’s also a couple key features that are missing from WinPho7 such as copy and paste. Whilst that particular feature should be here early next year the absence of that feature and others will be enough for long time iPhone and Android users to think twice before replacing their handset. The lack of support for some carriers in the US could also serve to stymie adoption of the platform, but as the iPhone has shown many people are willing to make the switch if the platform is compelling enough.
If all this talk has you excited about trying out a WinPho7 device for yourself then you won’t be waiting too long with the first devices slated to hit Australia’s shelves in late October with the US getting theirs in early November. I won’t be lining up on launch night to get myself one but I’ll definitely be grabbing one of them (probably the HTC HD7) to fiddle with so I can start planning the Lobaco client for it. From what I’ve seen there’s definitely a lot of potential in Microsoft’s new grab at the mobile market but they’ve got an uphill battle in front of them. The next 6 months will be crucial for the fledgling platform’s success and I’m sure Microsoft will be doing everything they can to take back their title as the king of the smart phone arena.
6 months ago saw the announcement of Microsoft’s attempt to remain relevant in the smartphone space: Windows Phone 7. At the time I poked fun at it the fact that it was basically Microsoft’s interpretation of what the iPhone would’ve looked like if they made it but realised that the platform had potential. If there’s one thing Microsoft is good at its throwing money at a problem until they eventually get it right, like with the Xbox (are they even making money on the consoles yet?) and Windows Phone 7 seemed to be one of those kinds of problems. One thing that it did have going for it was the fact that a Windows developer like me could code for the device without reskilling too much and that’s where the real power is.
As much fun as it is to learn a new platform it’s still a giant barrier to building an application on a new platform. I haven’t done any development on any mobile clients yet purely because the two major ones I want to target use a language that I’m not familiar with. Sure there are cross platform libraries that might help to ease the learning curve but unfortunately they’ve been hamstrung by Apple’s restrictions and aren’t fully compatible with my IDE of choice, Visual Studio. So for any enterprising developer looking to build a mobile application there’s always an initial hump to get over in order to be an effective developer on the platform. That or you shell out some dollars to get someone else to do it for you, but not everyone can afford that.
If you were just to look at the number of developers working on any platform, whether it was mobile/desktop/web/whatever, the largest group would arguably be those working on Windows. With the number of desktops, laptops and other devices running some form of Windows exceeding 80% of the total computers worldwide the number of developers working on that platform far outnumbers that of any other. Microsoft knows this and whilst anti-trust legislation will prevent them from using their current monopoly on the desktop to leverage into the mobile space that won’t stop them from making it damn attractive for developers to gravitate to the Windows Phone 7 platform.
Now I’ve been a developer for a while, about 6 years as an amateur and maybe half that as being paid to do it as part and parcel of my usual system admin responsibilities. In that time I’ve used my share of environments, languages and platforms and out of the lot the one that I keep coming back to is Visual Studio. Whilst some might hate me for this next comment Microsoft’s tools just make coding things so damned easy to the point where there’s nothing I don’t think I’m a tutorial away from being able to do myself. Microsoft knows this and the past few months have seen them trying to lure their developers over to the mobile space with things like free development environments only seeking to charge you once you’re sign up for their marketplace.
They just don’t stop there either. Microsoft made headlines about a month ago when they gave each and every one of their employees a new WP7 phone. It was however a veiled gift as it came with the instructions that not only should they evangelize them amongst their friends but also develop apps for them in their spare time. With Microsoft having 89,000 employees this is no small number of handsets and whilst not all of them are developers (I’d hazard a guess at 30~40%) there’s still enough of them there to have their numbers brushing up against both the iPhone and Android platforms. That doesn’t even include potential developers outside Microsoft who might just start developing for WP7 if it takes off merely because it would be easy to do so. Realistically if Microsoft can harness the power of their developer base in the same way Apple did with theirs they could really pull themselves around in the mobile space, maybe even turning it into a 3 horse race.
The question is of course whether or not the teaming masses of Windows developers will find any point in developing for the mobile space. It can be argued that many desktop applications, where the vast majority of Windows application developers reside, can’t be transitioned onto a mobile platform in any useful way. Realistically if any developer was looking to tackle the mobile market they would have done so already and consequently have substantial investment in their platform of choice. Still the ease at which WP7 applications can be developed using existing skills and knowledge means that the platform might just become dominate because it brings developers to the mobile space that would have never considered it before. Since it can be argued that Windows Mobile is arguably the same thing as WP7 (just not as sexy) it’s going to take a bit more wooing from Microsoft to draw those reluctant developers over and in the lead up to the first WP7 phone hitting the markets will show them doing just that.
Personally I’m still excited about it. I’ve tried to develop simple applications for Windows Mobile before and it was always a royal pain in the ass. The new Windows Presentation Framework based interface for WP7 means that developing code for them will be that much easier. Additionally the integration with existing code bases will mean that the kinds of functionality that would usually have to be developed for the specific platform can now be leveraged with minor modifications, something that I know will at least have developers playing around with WP7.
And that is what has the potential to make WP7 the dominant player in the mobile space.
I’ve had a good share of Windows Mobile phones over the past few years and, up until recently, never really liked any of them. My first was an O2 XDA Atom Exec which I bought because I’d become one of those super smart IT admin-type guys and I should have a phone to match. It worked well for the first few months before starting to show problems like dropping calls and freezing at random times. After replacing the screen on the Atom it developed the fun problem of randomly turning off if it was bumped in any way and I ended up replacing it just on a year later with a HTC Touch Diamond. I thought that it was a brilliant phone until it decided to mute my speaker every time someone called me so I couldn’t talk to them and no amount of ROM flashing or hacking could convince it not to do it otherwise. My Xperia X1 has managed to avoid developing any show stopping problems thus far, but the hardware keyboard seems to be on the way out, missing keystrokes or repeating them 25% of the time.
I’m not alone with these gripes either and that’s why there’s a massive community dedicated to improving Windows phones by any means possible. Companies like HTC have allowed these things to flourish as they usually end up using many of the improvements that the forum generates (rumour has it their Touch-Flo UI was apparently born out of there). However this just shows how rife with systemic problems the Windows Mobile Platform is when people are that dedicated to making the devices more usable. It’s been the norm for the past 5 years and up until recently Microsoft had shown no signs of changing.
That was however before they announced the Windows Phone 7:
Microsoft really has changed nearly everything. Most obviously, the user interface is new. Touch is mandatory for all 7 Series devices, and the user interface reflects that; it’s touch-driven through and through. No longer will phone users have to use small, fiddly, desktop-oriented scroll bars; smooth finger scrolling with inertia is the order of the day. The finger-friendliness is exemplified by the new start screen. There are large panels in a smooth-scrolling grid. The look is clean and crisp, balancing at-a-glance information—counts of unread text messages and e-mails neatly displayed in their squares, for example—with simple thumb-sized accessibility. Each panel represents a particular “hub”—a place where all related information (be it contacts, photos, music and videos, etc.) is brought together and managed. As you move between the screens of each hub, smooth animations rotate and slide information into place, giving the user interface a kind of cohesive “joined up” feel.
This particular paragraph of the Ars Technica article really hits on the points that have frustrated us Windows Mobile users for years. At its heart any Windows Mobile device is really just a scaled down version of Windows, including the UI. For something that will predominately be used without a mouse and keyboard such a design drastically reduces the usability of the device, relegating many users to a “hunt and peck” style of interfacing with their device. HTC and others tried desperately to improve this by creating their own UIs that were more targeted towards mobile usage but if they didn’t include a certain application in their redesign you were straight back into mobile hell. I won’t even bother with the poor attempts at virtual keyboards.
With the coming of the iPhone and its finger friendly design Microsoft obviously began to reconsider it’s mobile design. Just as the iPod served as a testbed for some of the UI elements that made their way into the iPhone Microsoft is using a similar approach with the Zune. The extremely minimalistic design lends itself much more easily to use without a stylus and is a drastic improvement over what is available now. They’ve steered clear of many iPhone-esque features in order to create their very own look and feel for when you’re on a Windows 7 phone. Additionally they’ve also provided a fairly strict set of minimum requirements for any phone that might run the new mobile OS, which leads me onto the crux of the matter.
Whilst the biggest player in the smart phone market still isn’t Apple (it’s RIM, because of their corporate market capture) they are the largest direct competitor for Windows mobile devices. Additionally with Android on the up and up Microsoft is under incredible pressure to innovate or die and of course they’ve taken the route they always take: clone their best competitor. Sure on the surface the new OS doesn’t look anything like the iPhone but in reality the differences are quite deep. A minimalistic and finger friendly UI definitely resonates with Apple’s design philosophies and the strict platform requirements, whilst not as closed as Apple’s, are yet another Apple trademark. The icing on the cake is the recent launch of the Windows Marketplace for mobile applications, a direct competitor to the App Store.
For me however all of these are secondary to the biggest feature that the new mobile OS will bring: Silverlight to the mobile market. I was excited at the prospect of them bringing it to all Mobile 6 devices and above however they canned that idea sometime last year in favour of focusing on support for Mobile 7. The introduction of this tech to mobile handsets makes it possible for me to maintain a single code database for both web and mobile application version of Geon with only minor modifications, a significant reduction in coding time. It might sound like I’m just being lazy but the development road map I have requires support for the iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile and Web. If I can combine 2 coding streams into one that’s a reduction of almost 25% of my work with the added benefit of additional features that might not be available in platforms that don’t run Silverlight natively.
The unfortunate thing about this however is the release date for Mobile 7 is “holiday 2010” which basically means the end of the year. I’m sure there will be beta versions of it all over the Internet well before then but I can’t really devote anytime to coding for a product that’s not released and with an unknown user base. So it seems for now I’ll be stuck with my good old Xperia X1 running 6.0 and maintaining 4 separate code bases for my pet application. Still it’s something to look forward to and who knows if Geon takes off maybe they’ll even swing a phone my way for free (oh come on Google did it, why shouldn’t Microsoft!) 😉