Windows Phone 7: Honorable Mention or Eventual Winner?
Windows Phone 7, although struggling out of the gate, is poised for big things.
In just a couple of months, Windows Phone 7 will have its first birthday, and its prognosis for success seems to have polarized the tech world. Some pundits and luminaries in the industry have pronounced Windows Phone 7 dead, or nearly so; its market share is relatively small, and its presence in carriers' retail stores is spotty at best. Meanwhile, Microsoft persists in its push to gain smartphone market share, two major analyst firms have projected that Windows Phone will be No. 2 in the market by 2015, and the quantity and quality of apps for the platform is growing.
So who's right? Is Windows Phone 7 washed up or just getting started? Is developing apps for Windows Phone 7 a ground-floor opportunity or Microsoft fanboy folly? There are many more customers in the iOS and Android camps, but those are more crowded product fields as well.
Based on this uncertain environment, should you develop for Windows Phone 7? There's no one authoritative recommendation here, but taking careful inventory can provide a sound analysis upon which you can make an informed decision. Inventory items include the competitive standing of Windows Phone 7, its achievements and challenges, and what it has waiting in the wings.
The Situation on the Ground
I'll start with my personal perspective. I recently switched to an HTC Trophy (a Windows Phone 7 handset on Verizon) after 19 months as an Android user; I've also been an iPad owner since the day they came out last year. After having used all three OSes, I find Windows Phone 7 to be very well-conceived, and unique from -- rather than a derivative of -- its competitors.
Windows Phone 7 has much more polish and refinement than Android, much better e-mail and calendar capabilities than iOS, and is leagues ahead of both competing platforms in social networking integration. Windows Phone 7 is without a doubt way behind in app availability, but the major apps it does have (like Yelp, OpenTable and Foursquare) tend to be better than their Android or iOS counterparts.
With its well-publicized 500 new features, it looks very likely that the "Mango" release of Windows Phone 7 will solidify these leads and propel Microsoft to be a market contender. The Nokia partnership will make for good handsets. HTC and Samsung may step up their Windows Phone 7 handset game after Google's planned acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Nokia's carrier relationships and the decline of RIM should help bring Windows Phone 7 more prominence. Nokia's involvement should especially help in Europe and developing nations, and force Microsoft to support more languages on the phone and more countries in the Zune marketplace.
Serious challenges remain, though. To begin with, Windows Phone 7 handsets can be hard to find: Carriers don't feature them prominently and offer only a modest selection of models.
Microsoft's "love your phone by using it less" advertising campaign was clever but questionable, and in any case has tapered off.
OEM Windows Phone 7 handset offerings have been lackluster when compared to the iPhone, and when compared to better Android phones as well. And let's not forget about the Windows Phone 7 dependency on Silverlight, a technology that's been under a dark cloud of late.
A Reasonable Bet
Does this mean Windows Phone 7 is underfunded or weakly supported? I don't think so -- just look at "Windows 8" and the next-generation Xbox experience. You'll see that the Windows Phone 7 tiles and Metro UI constitute the very template for Microsoft's products going forward, and that in itself will help Windows Phone. Skype integration seems inevitable, and inevitably compelling. And Microsoft has teams throughout its field (not just in Redmond) working one-on-one with smartphone app developers to get them onto the platform.
So where does Windows Phone 7 want to go today? Despite its professed consumer focus, it wants to take business-user share from RIM, mainstream share from iOS, geek share from Android -- and even wants to take portable gamer share from Nintendo. And, of course, it wants to take developer share (that means you!) from everyone.
The platform has great tools and uses the same .NET stack you already know. It looks great, and customers really like it. Windows Phone 7 is not a breakout winner. Yet. But there's significant untapped value and huge potential in the technology. If you have risk tolerance and the desire to invest, these are the things you want. Windows Phone is not a sure bet, but it's a reasonable one, with an outlook that's even better.
Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!