Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

Blog archive

Windows Phone 7, and the Court of Pundit Opinion

On Thursday, a scathingly bad review of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) was published by InfoWorld. I had considered writing a post to refute some of its points, but Paul Thurrott did just that, and did it masterfully. There's little value that I can add to his post, other than to link it and suggest that you read it.

Meanwhile, Sunday and Monday, much more fair reviews were posted at CNET, ZDNet, Gizmodo, Engadget and MobileCrunch. All of these reviews were based on actual hands-on experience with a prototype Samsung device called "Taylor;" the InfoWorld post was based on the author's apparently unenjoyable experience at a product demo.

I'll let you read the reviews on your own and won't provide a CliffsNotes style redux of them here. What I will do though, is try and present some of the consensus findings, and how I think those findings bode for the success of the WP7 platform. Here goes:

  • 1. The touch screen is accurate and fast. This is biggest concern about WP7 was that in the early demos, the combination of the hardware and software seemingly produced a substandard touch experience. If you look carefully at those early demos, you will see flicks and swipes that are either ignored, or which produce responses on an unacceptably delayed basis. What I said then is that Microsoft and its OEMs needed to fix this and make it flawless, otherwise it would be a deal-breaker. Seems like this gap has been closed, at least on the Samsung hardware that the reviewers used in their evaluations.
  • 2. The keyboard is accurate and fast too. A couple of the reviewers were emphatic in their enthusiasm over the keyboard. This is a big deal too, especially as a high-value candidate WP7 customer group is current BlackBerry customers, and they are used to physical keyboards. This really looks like an area where Microsoft can tie with Apple and win against Android.

  • 3. The highly text-oriented Metro interface is very appealing to certain users, and others find it disorienting. This is about what I expected, and even a bit better for Microsoft than I might have predicted. Microsoft decided -- wisely, in my opinion -- to craft a smartphone user interface that was not derivative of the iPhone's or Android's. I applaud this, but the danger in that is that Microsoft is breaking with a standard, and many people will see that effort as folly, and its work product as unusable. The outcome seems to be that InfoWorld hates it, a couple of the other reviewers were uncomfortable with it, and the remainder were pretty positive. Even CNET (one of the doubters) sees the validity in doing something different. Together, these reviews provide a genuine endorsement of Microsoft's UI strategy gamble, even if not a vote specifically for Metro, in all cases.

  • 4. Exchange integration and email in general seem very well implemented. Once again, this will appeal to the BlackBerry crowd. Office integration seems more optimized for viewing documents than for editing them. That’s a disappointment, to be sure. But it’s no worse than the other platforms.

  • 5. The camera is really good, highly accessible, and fast. This could be an unexpectedly important advantage for WP7. Megapixels aside, the state of the art in mobile phone cameras still sucks wind. If Microsoft breaks this precedent and people hear about it, then it could be a nice driver of new handset sales for the platform.

  • 6. The Web browser, though not best in class, seems very good. This will surprise people who assume that Microsoft's lack of a WebKit-based browser means WP7 can't be functional for Web browsing. Opinions seem mixed regarding lack of HTML5 support. My take: this will need to come fairly quickly, but is likely not to be crucial at launch. My Motorola Droid has a WebKit browser with decent HTML5 support. But I think the only place I've put it to work was on the HTML5 test and demo sites I hit with it, out of curiosity.

  • 7. Everyone thinks the lack of cut and paste is unfathomably sucky. And they're right; it is. I think there's a very high probability that this capability will come in an over-the-air OS update within months of launch, and maybe sooner. In fact, I think there's a 30% chance that Microsoft will surprise us and have cut and paste ready for launch itself. Most reviewers bemoan the lack of multitasking too. I think this is less important – I think most iPad owners would agree, or at least they will up until the iOS4 release for their devices. That’s sort of my point: you can live without multi-tasking, until you have it, and then it’s a non-issue.

  • 8. Facebook integration is elegant and simple. It "lights up" exciting and impressive functionality on the phone. But it's not configurable enough and is unwieldy for people with a large number of Facebook friends. Good enough for v1.0, but probably not for v1.1, let alone v2.0.

  • 9. Twitter integration, other than through Windows Live, is conspicuously absent. Either Microsoft needs to add this, or a third party Twitter app, hopefully from Seesmic, needs to be available immediately and its integration with WP7's hubs and other features must be exemplary. If neither a native nor good 3rd-party app is available at launch or very soon thereafter, it could make WP7 a laughing stock. That could happen anyway, of course, but the lack of Twitter integration could be a laughter accelerant.

  • 10. UI inconsistencies in WP7 exist, especially around search and hidden "long taps" and could prove fatal. Or not. On the one hand, WP7 needs to be perfect, and these apparent issues make it fail the perfection test. That, in turn, could prevent WP7 from getting over the incumbency lock that Apple and Android have on the market. On the other hand, neither of those platforms is perfect either, and they certainly were not perfect at launch. So maybe people will cut WP7 some slack, given the high points already discussed here.

  • 11. Overall, WP7 will make Microsoft a contender in the mobile arena again. How long it can maintain that contention, and whether it can convert it to a leadership position is anyone's guess. But it is trying, it is getting traction, and it has the will to fight. Given the lowered expectations just about everyone has of Microsoft in this market, the mere fighting spirit and encouraging interim achievements it has delivered may catch people's attention. Heck, maybe that's why the crash and burn of Kin was so public and extreme.

WP7's introduction and market positioning will be seminal for Microsoft, to the upside, or to the downside. A significant success could restore morale amongst Microsoft's employees, partners and customers. If it merely establishes a toehold, that could be very positive too -- just look at Bing for evidence of this. But if WP7 flops, it could cause irreparable damage to a company that is already diminished in the mobile and consumer space, a space which is becoming ever more influential on the enterprise arena that is Microsoft’s bread and butter.

A WP7 flop could come even if Microsoft does everything right with the product. Many people have true disdain for Microsoft, and at least some of these people need to be won over. That's hard when the hatred runs so deep and the loyalty to other players seems to impenetrable.

To win this one, Microsoft needs to do what it did to make Word overcome WordPerfect, Excel beat Lotus 1-2-3, Exchange overcome Notes, and Live Messenger overcome AIM, all combined with the chutzpah, naïveté and finesse used to launch Bing and make everyone forget about Live Search. Given all but the Bing victory occurred long ago, when Microsoft was much more on its game, this victory is nearly impossible. But if you bet on Microsoft, you'll certainly get good odds.

You might get a really good phone too. And isn’t that the authentic goal?

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 07/20/2010

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