How Windows Phone 8 Can Succeed

Nokia’s Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8.

Big projects sometimes fail, no matter how much money, time, effort and brainpower is devoted to making them succeed. Big-budget movies and video games end up returning a mere fraction of their budget; high-profile startups release products that fail to impact the market; beautiful pieces of hardware gather dust on store-shelves.

Microsoft is trying very hard to ensure that Windows Phone is a big project that doesn’t fail. In the two years since the platform’s launch, however, it’s failed to take much territory from Apple’s iOS and Google Android, both of which split the substantial majority of the mobile market between them.

According to research firm Gartner, Microsoft’s share of the worldwide smartphone market stands at 2.7 percent, lagging behind Google Android at 64.1 percent, Apple’s iOS at 18.8 percent, Symbian (which Nokia largely abandoned in favor of Windows Phone) at 5.9 percent, and BlackBerry at 5.2 percent. That’s in spite of a huge push by Nokia to promote its new lines of Windows Phone devices.

Now Microsoft is ramping up the marketing campaign for Windows Phone 8, the successor to Windows Phone 7.x. The new platform shares a kernel, file system, graphics support, and other elements with Windows 8, creating a tight link between the two platforms. While that could draw more attention to Microsoft’s smartphone platform—something it really needs—the recoding leaves Windows Phone 7.x owners without a clear upgrade path; the latter won’t be able to run Windows Phone 8 apps, and Microsoft has declined to say whether more evolved software versions will appear beyond the upcoming Windows Phone 7.8.

Based on Microsoft’s last two years in the smartphone game, here are some possible ideas for ensuring that Windows Phone 8 proves something of a success—or at least not an enormous marketplace bomb:

Take Advantage of Google Android’s Current Issues

Enormous market-share aside, Google Android is in a bit of trouble these days. Apple recently won a massive intellectual-property case against Samsung in California, arguing in the process that the Korean manufacturer’s Android devices violated its patents. While Apple has kept quiet about its next steps, it’s no secret that Steve Jobs promised to go thermonuclear on Android, which he believed was a blatant copy of iOS; there’s a view that Apple, emboldened by its Samsung victory, might attack Android by launching patent-infringement claims against other manufacturers.

Many of those manufacturers already pay Microsoft royalties per Android device. Microsoft has claimed for some time that Android violates its patents, and sent teams of lawyers to those manufacturers with a simple proposition: either pony up licensing fees, or prepare to weather a massive courtroom assault. Those targeted firms have generally chosen Option A: Pay Up, although a few—including Barnes & Noble, which offers a Nook e-reader built on Android—decided to file counter-claims.

These developments are liable to make your average Android device manufacturer a little bit nervous, perhaps even nervous enough to consider Windows Phone as an alternative operating system. Whatever Microsoft can do to promote this sort of thinking, it could win with more Windows Phone devices on the marketplace, more advertising dollars behind those devices, and thus more sales to consumers. And while Microsoft most likely won’t offer Windows Phone to those manufacturers for free, it might want to consider lowering the per-unit cost of the software to a more attractive price point.

Stop the Upgrading Uncertainty

Before there was Windows Phone, there was Windows Mobile. Then Windows Mobile started looking downright antiquated next to the iPhone and the first Android devices, and Microsoft realized it was time for a change. In the fall of 2009, the company released Windows Mobile 6.5, which it openly acknowledged was a “transitional” OS until Windows Phone could hit the market.

Windows Mobile 6.5 failed to stop Microsoft’s market-share slide. Why would anyone want to buy a “transitional” device, especially one with no clear upgrade path to the latest-and-greatest thing supposedly right around the corner.

Then Microsoft released Windows Phone 7. That failed to reverse Microsoft’s fortunes in the smartphone space, although the first generation earned some strong reviews from tech punditry. When Nokia decided to abandon its homegrown operating systems in favor of Windows Phone, and Microsoft released the “Mango” update with a broad array of new features and services, the message seemed clear: Microsoft and its partners were committed to this platform for the long term.

At least, that was the public message. Soon after Windows Phone 7 hit the market, Microsoft was already planning for its obsolescence in favor of Windows Phone 8. “We knew that the long-term plan was Windows 8,” Greg Sullivan, Windows Phone senior project manager, told SlashCloud the day after the Windows Phone 8 announcement. The upcoming platform, he added, was “good for the long haul.”

But that shift between Windows Phone 7.x and Windows Phone 8—without the ability of Windows Phone 7.x users to upgrade to the new software—could raise uncertainty and doubt among users about Microsoft’s commitment to any one platform or code-base. Apple iOS and Google Android users don’t face that same sort of issue; they know that if they buy a device, that hardware will eventually upgrade to the latest version of their preferred operating system (although some Android manufacturers don’t exactly upgrade their devices on a timely schedule).

If Microsoft wants to ease those doubts, it needs to be very public with users about Windows Phone 8’s permanence, as well as its interoperability with Windows 8.

Push Cloud Apps and Services

When Windows Phone 7 first arrived on the marketplace, critics praised its user interface—the screens of colorful tiles linked to applications was a far cry from the “grid of icons” look that defined the iOS and Android interfaces. However, many of those same critics felt that Windows Phone 7 was too sparse, at least in its first iteration.

Microsoft attempted to change that perception with a series of upgrades, most notably “Mango,” which gave the platform new layers of features. It also encouraged third-party developers to build more apps for the platform—and build they did, with hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of apps on offer. Despite that growth, Windows Phone is still perceived as somehow “lacking” in comparison to Android and iOS.

That’s obviously a perception Microsoft can’t let stand for Windows Phone 8. Microsoft is betting big that Windows 8 interoperability will serve as a huge attractor for third-party developers, arguing long and loud that apps will port from desktop/tablet OS to smartphone OS with relatively little work. The ability to run Windows Phone 7.x apps could also help Windows Phone 8 emerge as a fully developed platform.

With all that in mind, Microsoft will need to push from the very beginning that Windows Phone 8 is indeed ready for primetime. Facing off against iOS and Android, it can afford nothing less; and with those other options easily available, consumers won’t stick around for a platform they perceive as half-baked.


Image: Microsoft