Trending: Microsoft opens mysterious office in small town a ferry ride away from Seattle

David Aronchick

Guest Commentary: The tale of Microsoft killing its Courier tablet project is both riveting and familiar. With Microsoft making two-thirds of its revenue from enterprises, it comes as no surprise that the company would protect that golden goose by sacrificing even a potentially world-changing innovation. And, now that Microsoft is playing catch-up, all future offerings will be measured not just against the success of the iPad (which will be both enormously larger in volume and revenue for YEARS), but against the lost opportunity of having done nothing else for years.

While we wait for Windows 8 next year (or the next), let’s see whether or not they have learned anything by looking at their most recent attempt to change the world: the Windows Phone.

I am a bit of a Microsoft junkie. After working there for six years, I know how hard the folks at Microsoft work. They do their best to make products their customers love, and I like to reward their hard work. I was the last person at my startup Hark to use Outlook exclusively (even on my Mac), I still carry a Zune around, and I am the only non-Microsoft person I know to own and use a Windows Phone.

My review? First and foremost, it is an extremely well-thought-out and usable phone; if it was not for the iPhone or Android, this would be on the cover of every magazine as an absolute game-changer. And I am far more productive on the Windows Phone than I am on iPhone and Android – it’s far more focused on tasks than on apps, and nicely merges together things that would otherwise be annoying silos.

Unfortunately, the reality is that Windows Phone is fighting for single-digit percentages of market share. And, while Microsoft’s goals are modest in the near term, Windows Phone has but two vectors for success to avoid the demise of the Kin or Zune: Killer hardware and universal developer support. Anything but homeruns in these facets of the product will result in disaster. Let’s take look at how they’re doing.

Killer Hardware: B-

The team behind the Courier talked a lot about all the customization required from the hardware side to make a product customers love. Getting the product right requires a bunch of the right bets:

  • Right weight
  • Right dimensions
  • Right battery-life
  • Right responsiveness
  • and most of all, the right LOOK.

And this was RIGHT; these decisions were CRITICAL to the success of the device. The devices we carry around now are no longer merely tools – they are who we are. These devices are in our pictures (not just taking them), they match our clothes and determine the size of the accessories we can carry over our shoulders. If Microsoft allows itself to just ship software and let the market determine the hardware, its products will not be competitive.

The Windows Phones that have already shipped have been mostly good, but they scream, “we’ll take it 75% of the way there and let phone makers take it the rest.” Microsoft hit it out of the park with Xbox, but, sadly, getting burned on Zune and having a culture of “we don’t do hardware” has led them to conclude that they will never own the phone and experience end-to-end the way that Apple does.

This is a mistake.

Windows Phone camera viewfinder

Even with phenomenal reviews like this, Windows Phone devices are still not religious enough about the end-to-end user experience, and the ultimate quality will suffer, sooner or later. Take my phone, for example. Microsoft touted the instant picture, even from lock screen, as a killer feature – and it’s fantastic. Or, at least, it should be if the hardware was implemented right. My phone? Maybe one out of every ten times I hit the button, the camera comes up. It ultimately may be HTC’s fault (I am using an HTC Trophy), but I do not blame HTC, I blame Microsoft. It is not my job, as an end user, to establish where the fault lies; if Microsoft wants to win, they need to take complete ownership of my experience with the phone. Here, they clearly failed.

Their only hope is to have an insanely-detailed hardware guideline spec for literally EVERY user experience — AND enforce it. Off by more than 2% on wake from sleep? No go. More than a 0.1 mm gap between the microUSB port and the shell? Back to the lab. To win in consumer devices, you MUST pitch something larger than just number of cores and megabytes of memory; you are selling the whole package. On this, I agree with MG Siegler (rare but it happens): Specs Are Dead. Either commit yourself to that mission, or end up with Frankenstein’s monster of half implemented (and unsold) phones.

Universal Developer Support: C+

Every developer in the world needs to not just be interested in making Windows Phone apps, but be actively pursuing them. Every. Single. One. If there is one out there who thinks “I’ll get to a Windows Phone version eventually, if at all,” then Microsoft has lost.

I know that there’s a default opinion inside Microsoft that says, “We have a Twitter app, we have a Facebook app, what’s the problem?” Go to iTunes and type in Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Instagram. Or RSS Reader. Hundreds of choices. Saying “We have one that meets your requirements” is like telling everyone you get as much delicious chocolate ice cream as you want. Some people will love it, but it is not a solution for everyone. Why are more choices needed? Because every different app of them will meet at least one user’s needs perfectly. Every app may not earn a million downloads, but having the app that YOU love is the kind of thing that wins loyalty forever.

In terms of developer tools, Microsoft is off to a solid start; I would bet on Visual Studio as the development environment to beat vs. Eclipse or XCode any day of the week. And if there’s one thing that Microsoft knows how to do well, it’s help people build rich client software. The biggest stumbling block here is getting developers to see the value in doing so; with the Windows Phone a distant fourth in the market, it is very hard to make a case to spend precious developer time building a version of your app for the phone. If I were Microsoft, I would drive a dump-truck full of money up to the doors of the top 100,000 app makers, and make it a ridiculously easy choice to port to (or, better yet, release first on) the Windows Phone.

This is also a perfect example of a thousand lead bullets vs. a single silver one. I could practically hear people high-fiving across the lake when they got Angry Birds and Cut the Rope on Windows Phone. As they say in philosophy, that is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for victory. When the #1 game engine decides not to support your phone, it shows just how far you have to go. Efforts like offering Windows Phone buyers $25 app gift cards (BTW, why am I being punished because I bought mine 5 months ago?) do help by putting money DIRECTLY into the hands of the creators, but that is still not enough. Think hundreds of millions of dollars. Dump-trucks full of money.

So that is it. Nail those two or lose the phone wars. The Courier team knew that. I wonder if that knowledge will be lost now that the team has disbanded (and their leader has left the company).

Also interesting: Many of the areas Microsoft USUALLY focuses on are NOT part of the equation. For example:

  • Winning enterprises: I bet Steve Ballmer would give a billion dollars to take back his comment that “iPhone will have no chance of gaining significant market share.” I know what he was thinking — no Active Directory integration, no keyboard, this looks nothing like a Blackberry = lose. But employees have woken up to the fact that they are also consumers — and consumers want nice devices. RIM’s downfall in enterprises is proof point number one. Focus on consumers and what they want, not the IT department. (Hint: if Microsoft EVER starts talking about Active Directory as a winning feature, they are doing it wrong).
  • Making your Operating System “the best/most feature rich/blah blah blah”: iPhone did not have copy-and-paste or a decent notification system for YEARS, and that did not slow its adoption one iota. Focus on great user experience, and deal with the feature checkbox later (if at all). And I would avoid talking about features your phone has but no one uses because the UX could not be understood by people with PhDs in computer science (I’m looking at you, Craig Mundie). Reminds me of Raymond Chen’s Essay about how the guts of the Calculator and Notepad had changed dramatically, but the UI has not, so no one noticed. It just does not matter how sweet your multi-core, UI-priority threading features are — perception is reality. Microsoft, take whatever resources you have available and put them on features that people can see.
  • Making Carriers Happy: Mobile OS manufacturers bent over backwards to support all the many, many, many requirements of the carriers and that led to years of subpar and forced application installations. iOS changed the game; they not only do not have a great relationship with carriers, one might even say it is antagonistic. Contrast that with Android, who has a million phones with every carrier under the sun, and is taking installs like mad, and all that has led to is hideous fragmentation. I am going to bet that this is going to cause a lot of pain for Google in the not-too-distant future. Focus on what the people who buy your product care about, not the networks they run on. Oh, and by the way, I NEVER like the carrier version of apps. NEVER. EVER. They do not know how to build software. Do NOT let them on your phone. I would also prefer no device manufacturer versions either, but that will never happen. Somehow, they think that is going to be the differentiation for why I buy one product over another. IT NEVER IS.

Microsoft tries to tackle so much every time they launch any new product. Their desire to do everything at once leads to a jumble that almost never works. When it comes to pure software, no one does a better job catching up and beating the competition. But in the world of end-to-end joy, I wonder whether Microsoft will sharpen its focus before it is too late. That is, if it’s not too late already.

Follow-up by GeekWire’s Todd Bishop: Windows Phone: Why apps are still the big stumbling block

David Aronchick is the founder and CEO of Hark, an Internet media company that lets people create, share and listen to entertaining, informative and timely sound bites online and through mobile devices. He was previously a senior product manager at Microsoft on products including Windows and Internet Explorer. You can follow him on twitter, google plus, on the Hark company blog or his personal blog.

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