There’s a Turkish proverb that says – “No matter how far you have gone down the wrong road – turn back!”
That’s Microsoft for you in the mobile device business. For several years, I have voiced my frustrations to my friends in Redmond (disclaimer – I spend quite a bit of time with Microsoft on marketing capability development) about how Windows Mobile was trying to be “Windows on a mobile device” and failing miserably at it. For a simple reason. A mobile device is NOT a smaller computer that you carry around. It is a very different user experience and so it logically demands a very different user interface. I vowed that, as long as Microsoft kept the “Start” button and the menu bars that went with it on WinMo, I would never use a Windows Mobile device. You can keep putting lipstick on a pig, but it will remain a pig. The concept of seamless integration with your desktop and enterprise (Outlook, Office, etc.) was a great idea and a good differentiator for Microsoft, but that does not mean that you need to make your mobile device look like, act like and feel like your desktop! Windows Mobile was annoying, klutzy and slow. But most importantly for me, it was just the wrong user interface because it was trying to carry the legacy of Windows on to a mobile device. This legacy was like a ball and chain attached to a ballet dancer’s foot.
And we have seen this before. I teach a classic case on the Apple Powerbook dating back to 1994. In that case, Apple was just coming off the failure of the Portable project. The Apple Portable was designed to be a “no compromise” smaller desktop – it had an 8-hour battery life, active matrix display, powerful processor and a big hard drive. The only problem – it weighed 17 lbs! Apple had fallen into the trap of extrapolating ther “mental model” it developed about the ideal user experience from the Macintosh to the Portable. The problem -laptops are NOT smaller desktops. They are used in a variety of different scenarios and the user experience you create has to be quite different from a desktop. Microsoft (in my opinion) was also carrying around the mental model of “make Windows mobile” as opposed to “make a delightful mobile device experience”. Success can be a lousy teacher and legacy can stifle your creativity and shackle you.
So I am pleasantly surprised to see that Microsoft has finally broken free from its chains and has started from scratch to build Windows Phone 7 Series (to my friends at Microsoft – please also break free from the lousy brand naming legacy and call this thing something less verbose!!). Finally, it is a user experience that is built ground up with the user in mind as opposed to the Windows legacy in mind. The Tiles, the gorgeous graphics, the seamless music and video integration and the social networking features all make this a truly worthy competitor to the granddaddy of user experience – the iPhone. And what I like most is that Windows Phone 7 does not try to copy Apple. It goes in a different direction and it goes beyond in many ways. And like Apple, Microsoft is finally taking more responsibility for the end-to-end user experience, by being a lot more presriptive to the ODMs and OEMs about the “reference specs” that will guarantee a minimum quality of user experience. For too long, Microsoft has taken a cop-out by saying that “we don’t control the end-to-end experience like Apple does”. But in fact, it DOES have the power to dictate the user experience to its partners. I’m glad to see this happen, at least from the early indications.
There’s still many unknowns here. Will it all work as promised? Will the apps be anywhere close to the Apple iPhone ecosystem? What will the devices look like and how many OEMs/ODMs will sign on? How will carriers respond? Is it too late for Microsoft in this game?
But I do give a lot of credit to the folks behind this new version for admitting that they were on the wrong road, and that sunk costs are just that – sunk. This is a fresh start for Microsoft. The mobile device game just got more interesting and more competitive. The only certain winner – you and I. I can’t wait to get my hands on one of these. Anybody in the Mobile business listening?