Microsoft Has a New Phone


Today’s, and probably this week’s, RSS clogger is news around the new Microsoft mobile phone. I think it is great that Microsoft has a new phone – it needed one. But I find the news coverage about it oh so dull.

The basic coverage goes something like this: “Fight! fight fight fight!” Basically, the gambit of its an iPhone killer to its too little too late.

I have three points to make about this nonsense.

1) It’s a big market.

2) We need choice and competition

3) It’s still a phone!

It’s a big market

The mobile Internet is a big market – and one that still has plenty of growth. On a recent keynote, Peter Sheahan offered this bit of whimsy:

A McKinsey study for AT&T; in the mid 1990s, that predicted that the total global market opportunity for mobile telephones – ever – would be 900,000 units. AT&T; ignored them and went ahead with more ambitious plans (by next year, there will be around 5bn mobile phones in the world).

Everyone will have (at least) one mobile phone/internet device. Plus these devices have a short lifespan. My Droid, almost a year old, has gone from state-of-the art to obsolete quicker than its two year contract term. I am shopping for a new phone again and I don’t expect it to last two years either. I go back to Mary Meeker’s presentation at Google’s Atmosphere where she called the Mobile Internet the 5th wave; mainframes, minis, PCs, Internet, and now the mobile Internet – each wave 10 times larger than the previous.

Big markets have lots of choices – and there is room for Microsoft to not only enter this market, but with little detriment to the incumbents. In 2009, Apple dominated the smartphone market. In 2010, Google’s Android made impressive gains, but not necessarily at Apple’s cost. In fact, Apple is doing quite well despite the fact that Android phones are now outselling the iPhone. The market size continues to grow.

In my opinion, Android may not have even happened if it had not been for Apple, and now Google’s and Apple’s joint successes are creating an opportunity for Microsoft. Personally, I have yet to find the perfect phone – perhaps Microsoft will be the first to get it right. The losers are those that are not innovating and keeping up with the ever rising bar. Not long ago:

  • The Palm Treo was probably the best smartphone on the market. Palm who?
  • RIM dominated the enterprise with its expensive Blackberry Enterprise Server (a server was required to access corporate email from a phone?).
  • The world bowed to Nokia for its world mobile dominance and leadership. Empires in this world fall more often than they rise.
  • Microsoft, prior to the iPhone had a strong mobile position with multiple models on every major US carrier and around the world.

It would be irresponsible for Microsoft to ignore this market.  The fact Microsoft lost its footing and failed to leverage its headstart was news. The fact Microsoft is attempting to catch-up is not news. Though it would not seem to the case based on my news feeds.

We Need Choice

We technologist (yep, including me) love to find the right answer. The engineer in us tells us there is a right answer. There are lots of ways to write a poem, but only one correct answer to a mathematical problem. We strive to find the right answer and we ridicule those that don’t – and every time we do so we make life harder for our consumer side.

We become zealots and insist the competition go away  – a fast paced game of Darwinism. Think of the past evolutions. Novell had the best LAN – we poked fun as the inferior competition from Artisoft and Banyan – then replaced it all with NT/Windows. We thought Windows on the desktop was far superior than Apple’s MacOS and IBM’s OS/2 in the corporation. We said enough of WordPerfect and Harvard Graphics and settled on MS Office. We said Cisco was better than Wellfleet and subsequently Bay Networks. Netscape had to go. The list goes on, we drive choice to its death – we want a clear winner – a single elegant solution. That’s the world of tech because there can only be one. Apple’s iPods, Google on Search…We hate monopolies, but work diligently to create them.
(I wanted to replace my video iPod with a competitive brand – something with at least 100 GB of storage for a video library…none exist).

This works well in technology, but not so much in the consumer space. Consumers aren’t engineers. They don’t seek the perfect answer, they want their colors to shine – and oh so many colors. We have way too many breakfast cereals, way too many car brands, too many shoes. Just buying a ball point pen can be a daunting experience. Don’t get me started on soft drinks. We have entire stores that sell nothing but socks. But then who am I to say there are too many choices – socks aren’t about technology. They are about… well, something else.

The tech consumer space is a tricky paradox of conflicts. Consumers like choice, technologists don’t. Neither will accept compromise. VHS beat Beta not because it was better (it wasn’t), but because it had more movies. The PS/2 had more games than the Nintendo Cube. We need our tech to fit our lifestyles. I recently read about someone buying an Android phone that found the experience frustrating because there were so many choices. He finally settled on one, and then a new one was announced so he opted to return it. He spoke highly of the Apple iPhone experience being so much simpler. Too much choice! Anyone who has built a home or did a major remodel knows how too much choice can be a problem. Curtailing choice is Costco’s secret weapon of success (low prices is its non secret weapon).

Nokia, RIM, and the others aren’t providing viable alternatives for smartphone seekers. The iPhone is great but comes with a very high walled garden. The Android phones are amazing, but lack polish and make some aspects too cumbersome. There is room for a third choice. One of my complaints with my Android phone is accessing/editing Google Docs. Look, Microsoft’s new phone integrates with Office. Competition is good for the consumer. There is plenty of room for innovation and choice and the technologist engineer types need to stop insisting that alternatives to their personal choice are meritless.

It is Still a Phone

Being a voice guy, I hear a lot about how voice is dead. It isn’t. Voice is alive and well and sometimes the examples are so visible they are hard to see. Earlier this year, Apple shook things up with the introduction of the most confounding piece of successful tech I’ve ever seen – the iPad. It is unlike any other consumer tech device, replaces none, and it is highly desirable. But it has what many consider a major flaw; it isn’t a phone.

I think it is important to note that the iPhone has the word “phone” in it. As does the Windows 7 Phone. Obviously the devices do much more than voice and will continue to do much much more, but they are phones. They threaten other phones and it feels a little better knowing that that they are phones themselves.

Voice is far from dead.

UPDATE Oct 12/10: See my post at NoJitter: Microsoft’s Phone is Calling.

Dave Michels