MWC 2013 I came to Barcelona to take the pulse of Windows Phone - which I’ll confess I've grown to like quite a bit - I came away trying to make sense of the following paradox.
A decade ago, and for some years either side, Microsoft had a terrible mobile device platform but noisily insisted it would succeed. Perhaps because it was Microsoft, and everybody would eventually abandon their resistance. Never mind the quality of the client OS, they would say, you’re getting Windows enterprise integration - and a great development environment.
Microsoft only made very limited progress with WinMob. Only its existing Windows customers like Compaq and HP nibbled - oh and HTC, which is a kind of granny flat attached to Fortress Redmond. (HTC was a contract manufacturer exclusively doing Windows Mobile devices, which later became an OEM brand).
Today Microsoft has a really good mobile platform, and once again insists everyone will eventually succumb. Look, says the Windows Phone team – you’ll get Windows enterprise integration! And a really great development environment! It’s almost a bit like whatever soul inhabits the body of a Microsoft mobile marketing person – the script remains the same. And nothing changes very much.
But it doesn’t do this noisily anymore. The paradox is this: when Microsoft had a terrible product (except perhaps as a second device, or as an enterprise terminal) it was a lot noisier than it is today. But Microsoft doesn’t do noisy any more. In fact, it barely whispers.
Having launched Windows Phone 8 at the tail-end of October, Microsoft had a low-key presence at CES in January and an even lower one here. That’s a strange way to convey momentum – by disappearing. There were many Microsoft staff here – but no Meet 'n’ Greet box. I met my Microsoft appointment, Bill Cox, in one of the generic catering outlets - the one with an hour-long queue for a hot dog. Dress to impress, huh?
There I learned nothing I didn’t know before – and not a hint that Microsoft was budging from its hard-set schedules of a developer jamboree in summer and a consumer launch in time for the US Holiday Season. It doesn’t need to prove how great it is.
This is all quite perplexing, for several reasons.
One is that if you were in charge of the No 1 smartphone platform you could afford to relax. Microsoft is not even in the Top Three – there are no laurels to rest on, here. This is a platform loved by reviewers and respected by analysts - but with very real "demand" issues. Prospective licensees want to know you’re going to do the platform marketing so they can concentrate on hyping their brand and their devices.
Secondly, grumbles about Microsoft, its Windows Phone corporate vice president Terry Myerson and its "play-dead" marketing strategy were not hard to hear at Barcelona.
Nokia didn’t mutter, even off the record, I must stress. But sources familiar with ODM strategy told me:
“Myerson is Microsoft old school. He’s very much about preserving the purity of his platform.”
Another grumble is that change is slow.
Defects apparently need three OEMs to demand something is fixed before it is fixed. Since WinPho really only has four licensees, this doesn’t happen very often. Perhaps they should all form a union?
You don’t get any lack of enthusiasm from Windows Phone development team lead Joe Belfiore – to whom it seems life or death. But that just doesn’t appear to be reflected higher up the management chain. Instead, we see the kind of stoicism that allows a Microsoft executive to endure a Windows Vista – all those years of making soup with grass on the Steppes.
Getting a more responsive, dynamic and ODM-friendly Windows Phone chief would help: it would send a message to the industry how important WinPho really is to the Beast. But alas, this is Microsoft, remember. And Politburo politics are paramount. Steve Sinofsky was allowed too much freedom – and wandered way, way off the reservation - before mutually agreeing to leave late last year. Sinofsky didn’t do what was required, and produce source level compatibility for all the Metro-style “new apps”.
My Microsoft contact explained that the best selling point of Windows Phone was the new phones. The corporate message comes down to: WinPho has a) A broad array of devices b) the experience is personal c) there’s Win8 integration. “Three times more people are asking for Windows Phones - we’re selling four times as many Windows Phones as a year ago,” he insisted.
That last point - Win 8 integration - is arguable. The multiple code-bases for each flavour of Metro app has, if anything, made platform fragmentation worse than ever.
Now either Microsoft is playing a very long game, or perhaps it really doesn’t care too much about winning here - a muddling success is good enough for all the managers involved. This kind of attitude is common in bureaucracies – keep your head down - it’s a form of risk aversion. But when the product is really good, it’s baffling. Perhaps your career might actually (radical idea coming up) benefit from success?
I should stress no grumbles came from Nokia at all – but rather from other parties.
This is what Nokia’s Michael Halbherr told me: “Number one, we build great products. This is the second generation of devices, and you can now see our full portfolio. We’ve worked with Microsoft to stress differentiation. We do this with imaging and location, and also with our design.
“Number two, we work with operators. Operators want to rebalance the ecosystem.” Halbherr described the US as the lead market and said Nokia wants to ensure every operator “gets a ‘hero’ device”.
“Thirdly, we have to tell the story at the Point of Sale,” he says. Nokia has a cardboard pyramid with a small aperture to show the Lumia 920’s capabilities in low light conditions. “We get that pyramid in there to show customers how good Lumia is in low light conditions. Then someone can see how our camera compares to a Samsung Galaxy or iPhone’s camera in low light conditions. This is what we stress, not that the phone has 4 CPU cores, or runs at 3GHz.”
All this doesn’t mean big prime time TV advertising campaigns. “It doesn’t happen in a week, said Halbherr. You don’t need to get to 70 per cent overnight.”
When asked about other OEM concerns, Halbherr replied: “Microsoft is a very big organisation – but if I have a problem, I can phone Terry. And Terry phones me.” ®