Thursday, February 18, 2010

The New(?) Microsoft Give Us a Three-Way Horserace

For the last few months, my personal party-line has been that the cell phone OS wars are over: it's now iPhone and Android phones, with all other OS'es (BREW, Symbian, Windows Mobile, etc) playing the role of Dead Man Walking.

I had heard of the "Zune Phone," of course, as well as "Project Pink," "Windows Mobile 7" and a dozen other working names out of Redmond. However, like everyone else, I had made the mistake of counting Microsoft out of the game. They're old. They're slow. They have crappy marketing. Everyone hates Windows Mobile. (I mean, a stylus? Seriously? Who uses that?)

That was stupid not only on my part, but on all the Apple Faithful out there who have been taking joy at the iPhone's trouncing of the mobile market. I don't blame them, I blame myself. I'm 900 years old, you would think I would have learned by now: Microsoft iterates towards a goal line. They take the criticism, the market hostility. And they wait and they watch and they learn. That's what they do. That's what they have always done.

They watched Atari and Commodore, and they built MS-DOS (tricking the Great IBM into both paying them to write the OS and allowing the proto-MS to keep it for themselves). They watched Apple and Atari and Commodore create GUIs as a new interface paradigm, and they slowly iterated their way into it with the horrible Windows 1.0, 2.0, 3.1 (all of which were just interfaces on top of MS-DOS), while the world laughed. Then Windows 95 showed up, and people stopped laughing. They watched as Sony and Nintendo duked it out with console game stations, and then they showed up with the XBox. What does Microsoft know about gaming and hardware? Apparently, a tremendous amount.

What's happening now is a renaissance for the company - again. Blaise Aguera y Arcas, an architect at Microsoft Live Labs (who is both a physical embodiment of the apparently hip, new crowd occupying One Microsoft Way, and representative of the "new thinking" going on there) garnered a standing ovation at the TED conference last week when he demo'ed the new Bing-based augmented reality maps. In the space of 15 minutes, Google Maps seemed old, stale and decidedly MapQuest-ish. This bears repeating: a hip, handsome, charismatic, non-nerdish, young Microsoft architect was given a standing ovation.

And then, back to my main focus here, there was this little ditty from the Barcelona World Mobile Congress: Windows Phone 7. The Zune phone. Project Pink. The thing that had been the behind-the-back snickering at every mobile gathering I've been at for the last 2 years. There it was...and it was...

  • ...not damned by faint praise in the press.
  • ...not thrown out for ridicule.
  • ...not considered to be "too little, too late"
  • ...not requiring you to use a stylus
It is, by all videos and hands-on experiences and advanced reviews I can get my hands on, gorgeous. Intuitive. Fast. Easy. And, here's the kicker: undeniably hip. Hip? From Balmer's Boys? Really?

OK, so the remnants of Microsoft of the last decade are there: "Windows Phone 7"? Seriously? Wake the eff up, Microsoft Marketing. Hire someone who didn't come from the enterprise software marketing world to name your software products. Hell, just walk down the hall to the hardware guys who named XBox, XBox 360, XBox Live, Zune... they could have called the Zune "Windows Media Portability 1.3," but they didn't. The world does not respond to the formulaic:

(Company Name) (Product Category) (Revision Number)

It's effing bullshit, we hate it, and its killing your reputation. Just stop it!

Lame-ass marketing aside, everything about this combination of redesigned phone OS (Microsoft is wisely killing off the prior versions of WinMo OS'es, and starting fresh here - bad news for the developers, great news for everyone else in the world) plus strict OEM guidelines for phone construction screams that there's something new going on in Redmond.

Comparing this phone to it's competition, it has also taken a completely different approach to its architectural philosophy: where the iPhone and android are application driven architectures, the Windows Phone 7 (dammit! OK, let me try "WP7" and see if that's easier) is data driven. It's not a new philosophy, it's actually quite old - going back to the 70's. The idea surfaced a few times in a couple of consumer products, most notably the original Palm Pilot and the Apple Newton, the latter of which dubbed this architectural concept as data soup.

As opposed to an application driven architecture, which relies on file transfers, data pipes and object passing at the OS level, and "copy and paste" exposed at the user interface level to move information from application to application, information on data-centric operating systems lives together, with all applications sharing the same underlying "like" data structures.

How this manifests itself to the user is the most beneficial on portable devices where the user is often in a crowded environment, or harried. Rather than opening up a contacts entry and then locating a person's twitter name, Last.FM neighborhood and phone number, the workflow on a data-centric device is more fluid. You may be listening to streaming music in the Zune marketplace on the WP7 device, and notice that a friend who likes the same music is online at XBox Live and so you tweet her about her gaming choice. It's all together, live and connected all the time.

This sort of user workflow isn't for everyone, and some people will not want to adapt to it - but the point here is that it truly breaks the paradigm that we are all used to. Actually, the paradigm that we have been taught (by Apple, Google, Nokia and others) is the way it has to be: that there is an app for that. It's new, it's different, it is often more intuitive to a handheld device - and, most impressively, it comes from stodgy old Microsoft.

So, I'm changing my personal party-line sightly: the mobile OS wars are over, but now it's a three-way race: iPhone, Android and WP7...uh, WM7....uh, Windows Phone Mobi....Jesus...and that phone from Microsoft.

UPDATE: March 4, 2010. Sigh, bamboozled again. OK, this little piece of data doesn't obviate my contention that Windows Phone 7 makes it a three-way horse race, but it does kinda crap all over my assertion that Redmond has it together. I had assumed that when WP7 comes out, that all other phone projects from MS were sent to the land of misfit toys. Not so if today's post from Gizmodo is true: Confirmed: Project Pink Lives. Steve, Steve, Steve (no, not THAT Steve, the OTHER Steve)...what are you guys doing? Combine Pink and WP7 or whack one of them - when has marketplace confusion ever worked?


iizLiz said...

Great post. I too was impressed to see Win7 mobile in action... But the question I wonder (besides the weak name as you already noted) is how app devs will prioritize this platform with iPhone, Android, and the like. Seems we've gotten past hardware differentiation and now we're on to experience; which includes apps. Google's in it to win-no question-and Apple revolutionized the experience - and made the devs think they can make their billions by writing the killer app. Where does that leave Microsoft and how badly do they want it? And I'm also not ready to discount the Finnish giant either

RocketMan said...

I think Nokia is toast, frankly. I've had a number of conversations with them at various levels, and I'm pretty convinced that they are just not "getting it" fast enough. They still are on top in the world wide market, they used to make great things, but the cluster-eff that is the Ovi store and the flop of the N900 show that the Giant Finnish Boat can't turn fast enough.

As to the apps on Windows Mobile Phone 7 Series (gak) - the ones I've seen demo'ed have been awe-inspiring. The NetFlix app is stunning, as is the Foursquare redesign. However, as shown with the Zune, never underestimate Microsoft's ability to mess up the marketing message. Churro's, anyone?