A debate is raging in the technology world these days: Is there a need for a third mobile ecosystem? (FYI, iOS and Android are the first two) If so, which is it gonna be? My position is that yes, we need a third mobile ecosystem, and Windows Phone is it. This post is my rationale as to why, and an invitation to debate the issue. Note that by mobile ecosystem I am talking about mainstream platforms. There will always be a need for multiple niche & proprietary mobile platforms for industrial or other specialized uses, but this post is mostly concerned with the mainstream consumer and enterprise spaces.
My regular readers and followers know full well that I’m an avid Windows Phone supporter. In the interest of full disclosure, I have almost entirely dedicated my 20+ years career to Microsoft technologies, starting with MS-DOS in 1987, Windows 3.0 in 1990 and Visual Basic 1.0 in 1992. I got my first Windows CE 1.0 device in 1997, adopted .NET in 2000, became a Pocket PC developer in 2001, became a Microsoft MVP awarded on .NET Compact Framework / Windows Mobile development in 2005, and a Windows Phone Development MVP in 2010. For 15 years I have been a Microsoft mobility consultant, advocate, conference speaker, trainer, author, blogger and “tweeter”.
It’s also important to note that I’m heading the mobile strategy at Infragistics, and while many of our products are Microsoft-centric, we have mobile developer tools for Windows Phone, jQuery / HTML5 / Mobile Web, and very soon for iOS too. I use both a Windows 7 laptop & a Macbook Air for work, I have an iPad, an Asus Eee-Pad Transformer Android Tablet and a Blackberry Playbook, my phones have been Windows Phones since 2010, but for the two years prior, I was using an iPhone 3GS (even when I was a Windows Mobile Dev MVP). The bottom line? Understanding and supporting all the modern platforms is a vital part of my work.
Still… Can I be objective about Windows Phone? Probably not.
But not because I think it’s “Microsoft or nothing”, it’s because I feel that Windows Phone is much needed in the modern mobile technology world, just like iOS is needed, and Android is needed. I’m not here to tell you Windows Phone is better. I’m here to tell you Windows Phone is as important as the other two.
Apple: The iPhone Revolution
For anyone who’s been involved in enterprise mobility for 10 years or more, what happened in 2007 was a major curveball. Technologists & futurologists call it a “disruption”. The short of it is Research in Motion (RIM) was on top of the smartphone world with its Blackberry devices, and Microsoft was desperately trying to tweak its Windows Mobile platform (based on then-eleven year old Windows CE) to compete in the enterprise space. As this battle ensued, comes Apple with the iPhone, sending shockwave ripples across the planet. Everyone heard about it. Everyone. Even my mother.
The iPhone was a revolution. Remember that at the time, Microsoft was slowly abandoning the Pocket PC touch screens in favor of rigid smartphone screens (e.g. Motorola Q, HTC Excalibur, Samsung Blackjack), just like the Blackberry, believing it was what users wanted. Give it to Steve Jobs to design a touchscreen phone that everyone wanted before they even knew they wanted it. That’s the disruption part. What Apple realized is that Microsoft was right, but the implementation was not. Instead of using a stylus on a resistive touch screen, the iPhone told us to use our fingers on a highly-responsive capacitive touch screen (as long as you held the device the right way). Now every platform uses them, and the rest is history.
The true revolution came a year later though: the iPhone App Store. Interestingly enough, Steve Jobs originally wanted to completely close down the iPhone platform, not allowing anyone to mess with its perfection, no multitasking allowed, insisting that all third-party apps would be built in AJAX and match the phone UI look & feel. Jump ahead 5 years and the iOS App Store is now the “benchmark” for any consumer software marketplace.
So what sets the iPhone apart? If you distill Apple’s flagship product to its essence, you get:
- A premium consumer smartphone built on powerful quality hardware, with enough enterprise features to survive in the business world.
- A device that is more about style than technology.
- A simplified & consistent holistic user experience.
- A highly controlled environment with strict rules & policies.
- The widest choice of third party applications, while still conforming to these rules & policies.
The end result is very polarizing: Those that love it will swear their undying allegiance to Apple. Others use it because it’s the “cool non-nerdy phone” and their friends have one. Many would love one but cannot afford it, and the rest will have nothing to do with it.
Android: Power to the People!
When it comes to Linux-based Android, Google went for the polar opposite approach. The first difference is that Android adopted a platform model similar to what Microsoft did with Windows Mobile: provide the software platform and rely on OEM’s to supply the hardware to run it. This is in contrast to Apple (and RIM) who supply & control both the hardware devices (iPhone, Blackberry) and the software (iOS, Blackberry OS). I find it interesting to draw parallels between Windows Mobile and Android, where the latter often repeats mistakes of the former. The main difference is that Android was designed on top of a more powerful & modern foundation.
Note: While Google acquired Android (and the company of the same name in 2005), it is officially a product of the Open Handset Alliance, and is maintained as an Open Source project. Since Google is at the head of all these efforts, Android is still generally considered a “Google product”.
The Android platform was designed with key principles in mind:
- Android is made available for free for use by any OEM (i.e. no licensing fees, but OEM’s still need to pay for the various patent licensing fees attached to Android).
- Giving complete freedom to the OEMs & carriers to customize the OS and differentiate their devices from one another.
- Giving the same freedom to Android developers to create and distribute any kind of apps, games, utilities, widgets, input panels, hacks, etc.
- Catering to new smartphone users by driving the costs down, making Android devices the new “default free phone”. Users sign-up for a new cell phone plan and they get a choice of free subsidized phones, now virtually all Android phones (these used to be Symbian feature phones).
- Catering to power users who want the best technical specs and the freedom to do what they want.
With OEM’s competing at both ends of the spectrum, Android can be found in the hands of teenagers, soccer moms, Wall Street traders and Silicon Valley IT gurus. In essence, Android is the power of choice. But as we all know, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Android’s strength can also be its Achilles' heel. The lack of user interface design guidelines resulted in an inconsistent experience across phones and apps, something that can drive some users away (though it’s slowly changing). By giving all power to the OEM’s & carriers, Android users never get any guarantee of upgrades when newer versions of the OS become available, resulting in a heavily fragmented ecosystem. This fragmentation in turn causes nightmares for Android developers who incur very high development, test and support costs as the device diversity increases and the fragmentation worsens. Finally, when apps can do whatever they want, it all gives birth to malware, adware, unwanted notifications, copyright infringement, app plagiarism and other digital calamities. This all leads to more user frustrations that have become so common they have their own Twitter hash tag.
It’s undeniable that Android is the most “powerful” mobile OS platform and is here to stay. In a nutshell, Android is to smartphones what Windows is to PCs.
Windows Phone: Microsoft’s Middle Ground
Given that Windows Mobile could barely keep up with Blackberry and certainly not face-off with iPhone or Android, Microsoft made the bold move of rebooting their entire mobile strategy, cut ties with the past, and introduced Windows Phone 7 (which is NOT an upgrade from Windows Mobile 6.5… the Microsoft phone names are really confusing). Now in its second major release (version 7.5, aka “Mango”), Windows Phone is a serious contender with a very high user satisfaction rate… if only users gave it a chance. It’s no secret that Windows Phone sales have been disappointing, though the Nokia Lumia 900 jumped on Amazon’s best sellers list at launch. Nokia went “all in” with Windows Phone and is pouring millions of marketing and innovation dollars in the platform. The recent launch of the Nokia Lumia phones in the US shows some promise, but it’s too early to tell.
Windows Phone is an important player though, as it fills a gap between iOS and Android:
- Windows Phone offers a middle ground between the controlled iOS environment and the Android “free for all”.
- It offers a wide choice of devices from various OEMs & carriers to its users (though not as wide as Android, yet).
- Windows Phone provides enough control & policing to avoid chaos & malware, but also has more openness than iOS.
- Windows Phone’s Metro design language also provides a consistent user experience across apps and devices, while still offering enough customization options and application mechanisms (e.g. Live Tiles) to allow users to customize the experience to their needs.
- Windows Phone’s Marketplace has now over 80,000 apps, and while that is a lot less than the 600K+ and 400K+ on iOS and Android (respectively), Windows Phone nonetheless has most of the apps users typically expect, and plenty of alternatives for the others. The Marketplace is growing at a pace of 1,150+ apps / week, and Microsoft & Nokia are actively courting the key missing ones to fill that gap. Interestingly enough, with over 90% of the desktop market, Windows has millions of software products vs. tens of thousands for the Mac, but that never stopped Mac users from claiming they have the superior platform.
- Windows Phone can also be a premium product, though currently not as high end as the iPhone 4S or the top Android devices. The 480x800 screen is very nice, but currently limited to a single resolution (rumors & Windows Phone 8 leaks point to more resolutions being supported in the next release). The lack of Windows Phone devices with more than 16GB of storage or with dual-core processors shows that higher end devices are needed, especially for the power users who in turn act as advisors to their friends. However, single core CPUs are not stopping Windows Phone from smoking other high performance phones out there.
- Windows Phone also competes on the low-end of the device spectrum alongside the “free” Android phones, as a convincing entry-level smartphone for those finally ready to abandon their Symbian feature phones, or buy a cell phone for the first time. The new Windows Phone 7.5 Refresh devices (aka “Tango”) with a reduced 256MB of RAM are aimed at cheaper handsets to conquer those seeking more affordable options.
- Finally, Windows Phone can be the enterprise smartphone that is needed to replace the Blackberry. Knowledge workers can feel at home with native support for Microsoft Exchange (including multiple mailboxes), built-in Office apps, and integration with Windows and SharePoint. IT administrators also welcome password protection, secure data communications, device security, application isolation and central policy management. Windows Phone 7.5 added email threads/conversations and server search, tie ins with Lync and Office 365, and a beta version of the Skype app is now available. Rumor has it that Apollo will add Bitlocker support and internal provisioning of enterprise apps.
Blackberry & The Rest of the Field
While some argue that a third ecosystem is not needed, others agree we need one but may think other platforms can fill that gap. The first name to come up is the Blackberry, which still has a significant share of the smartphone market, if only that share was not in free fall. The new leadership at RIM seems to be spinning more of the same message, key executives are defecting and rumors are starting to abound, from Blackberry adopting Windows Phone to RIM setting itself as an acquisition target. This hardly makes the Blackberry a frontrunner.
As for Symbian, its last serious supporter was Nokia, and we already know they are transitioning away from the platform, betting all their chips on Windows Phone. There’s WebOS, MeeGo, Bada and other platforms, but none of them are really in contention as mainstream platforms worldwide.
Windows Phone is the Third Ecosystem
Why is a third ecosystem even needed? Understand that technology platforms almost always evoke very emotional reactions from those who are passionate about tech. When confronted with two or three divisive choices that force us to be “locked-in”, humans often feel the urge to convince others to side with them if only to insure they made the right choice and won’t be the exception. Just look at the popular “technology wars”, current and past:
We all remember how these “technology wars” sparked heated debates, some still raging on. In every single instance cited here, choosing one over another also influences future habits and purchases. Which movies can I rent from the video store? Which games can I buy and which won’t be accessible to me? What software will I be able to use for work? What skillset should I learn for my career?
While the most popular debates were two-man races, the automobile industry shows that a very wide range is needed to please all users. Brand, features, performance, style & price are all factors that come into play. Picking a car can be a very personal choice, and smartphones are becoming that way too. Your smartphone is the one item that you carry with you at all times. You use it to communicate with friends, coworkers and family. Store your favorite music in it. Keep photos of your loved ones. Play games. Share on social networks. Choosing a smartphone is actually more about its subjective qualities than about specs. Forcing such an “emotional product” into a two-man race necessarily means leaving a lot of people behind. Remember that for every power user, there are thousands of casual buyers out there.
What makes Windows Phone the third ecosystem then? As stated above, the only other real contender is the Blackberry. But with a future that seems to lack direction or any innovation, I fear for the Blackberry’s ability to stay relevant. Trust me, as a Canadian, I am proud of the RIM success story, and it pains me to see them go down like this. I actually think we would all win in the end if Blackberry managed to hang on and challenge the other three. While the Blackberry currently struggles, Windows Phone has a lot going for it:
- It’s the perfect balanced choice sitting between iOS and Android, as explained above.
- It is brought to us by the world’s largest software maker: Microsoft.
- It is backed 100% by the world’s largest cell phone manufacturer: Nokia (and don’t forget a lot of Android OEM’s like HTC, Samsung and others also support Windows Phone).
- The unified Metro design language initially introduced by Windows Phone is now making its way everywhere. The Xbox 360 dashboard now sports a Metro design and sits in 67+ million living rooms worldwide. Windows 8 & Windows RT are coming in full force this Fall, both featuring the Metro UI front & center. All these devices natively integrate with Windows Phone, and every Xbox 360 and Windows 8/RT PC, tablet & laptop will be a virtual ad for Windows Phone. Metro will soon become a recognizable brand, and Windows Phone will be at the center of it.
- Windows Phone 8 (aka “Apollo” or whatever it ends up being called) is just around the corner, with all indications that it’ll ship later this year. If history serves, this will be the fabled “third version” of Windows Phone, which is usually when Microsoft gets it right and starts gaining widespread adoption in a product. If the rumors & leaks are true, I have no problem believing in the massive positive impact the next version will have.
When Microsoft bets the farm on a product, you can expect big things and a relentless campaign. The pundits claim that it’s “Lumia or bust”, but Nokia already confirmed that “there is no plan B”, and Nokia won’t go down that easily. Analysts have been making market predictions for the mobile market all the way to 2015, some showing Windows Phone in 2nd or 3rd place. The experts agree that Windows Phone will make it at least that far, and the future of Microsoft’s mobile platform won’t be decided in the next few months only.
Remember that for Windows Phone, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
What do you think? Is a third ecosystem needed? Where will Windows Phone be in 3 years? Post your comments here or ping me on Twitter.