Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

Blog archive

Microsoft's WinPhone RIM Shot

Long ago, in the mid and late-90s, the mobile device market was a bit different from today's. Palm led the PDA category, with monochrome devices that operated offline, until the Palm VII and its ultra-slow Internet service came out. The Palm VII was all the rage amongst early-adopters... I even bought the erstwhile publisher of Visual Studio Magazine's predecessor one and shipped it to him, because they were available in New York, but not in the Bay Area, where he was.

Then a Canadian company called Research In Motion came out with the Blackberry. It was also monochrome, and its form factor was that of an alpha pager. It was not a phone. But, with proper configuration, it could get your email over the air, in real-time, sometimes even before the message showed up in Outlook. And it had a wonderful QWERTY keyboard, that somehow made thumb-typing feasible. It could also sync your calendar and contacts over a USB cable, just like the Palm PDAs. I had one and it was pretty cool. Click here for a picture of that model.

To counter Palm, Microsoft came out with their PocketPC platform, appearing first on Compaq's iPaq device. A color screen, a workable on-screen keyboard (versus Palm's "Graffiti" stylus gesture input) and a Windows-derived software platform made it a compelling product. And with WiFi options, the thing count be nicely Internet connected, at reasonable speeds.

When Pocket PC morphed into "PocketPC, Phone Edition," the PDA platform became the first version of Windows Mobile, the one people now love to hate. Some said WinMo devices were just little PCs that could make phone calls, but when Phone Edition came out, that was literally true.

By this time BlackBerry units had also grown into phones, and Redmond's competitive sights slowly shifted away from Palm in Silicon Valley up north to RIM in Canada. Microsoft knew that RIM had two things they were missing: push email and physical keyboards. But those two things could be crafted by Microsoft and its OEMs, respectively, and given that a majority of RIM devices were in any case syncing against Microsoft's own Exchange Server, that meant Microsoft could provide the entire solution.

Microsoft was able to build its own Over-The-Air (OTA) sync technology, to which it applied its usual nomenclature savvy, christening it Exchange Sync. They then partnered with various handset OEMs, ironically starting with Palm and its 700w unit, to produce WinMo phones that featured the technology. Other phones followed, including the Q from Motorola and various units from HTC and Samsung.

This was (and is) a really competitive offering, but Redmond, with its business model, became its own worst enemy. The first problem was the then-current versions of Exchange and Windows Mobile did not ship with support for Exchange Sync. Exchange admins could install it though, without too much hassle. On the handset side, certain OEMs shipped their first units without the Exchange Sync client, promising an in-store flash ROM update to add it later on. Between the server and client, you had to be really determined to get Exchange Sync to work, and that was a pity.

Eventually, the releases of Exchange 2007 and WinMo 6 came, and both had Exchange Sync support built in, making provisioning much simpler and, finally, delivering a push email platform that avoided the expense of BlackBerry's Enterprise Server (BES) product. Sync fidelity was really good too, eventually allowing users not just to accept appointments, but to check for conflicts before doing so. Microsoft's ducks were finally in a proverbial row. And Redmond was ready to beat RIM and own the phone space.

And then, as if from nowhere, the iPhone came out. The holy grail for mobility shifted from keyboard and OTA push/sync to UI elegance. The first iPhone wasn't much for push email, but the second one was. In an ironic twist of fate, Apple added its own (licensed) support for Exchange Sync and, while not as good as WinMo's implementation (even now), it was good enough for many. Add to that the innovation of the AppStore, and Microsoft's ducks moved out of row formation and went every which way. Then Android came out and made the competition even worse; Google too has licensed Exchange Sync in order to make its mobile platform business-friendly.

Exchange Sync was important, and it still is. It remains the only communication technology that provides a mainstream alternative to BlackBerry (solutions like those from Good provide alternatives too, but they're just not mainstream). Apple and Android have Exchange Sync (and GMail even implements it on the server), but their implementations are less complete than Microsoft's. That can become a vulnerability if players like RIM and Microsoft can achieve something like parity on the touch-screen and user interface side.

RIM has tried to do this with BlackBerry OS 6. Reviews are mixed, and the company may be headed to a slow decline. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is also trying to keep the sync fidelity and pair it with a great consumer-acceptable UI experience.

RIM tried to revamp their OS. Microsoft decided to build a completely new one. RIM's approach seems like it might not have worked, and I actually think Microsoft's looks pretty good. After spending some more time with a WP7 phone today, I believe that even more.

And because of all this, although Microsoft is not marketing WP7 to the RIM customer demographic, I think that demographic is where it's going to get significant market share. RIM's customers are more churn-prone right now than are Apple's or Google's. And they need the quality Exchange Sync experience that only Microsoft seems willing to implement. They want fun apps, and they want to spend more of their phone time using them. But they need what they do with their phones today to keep working. They may not talk about it, or lust after it, but they need it. If it were gone, they'd be outraged. And that means, if they jump ship from RIM, they're going to need WP7.

This may sound boring, or anti-climactic. It may be tempting to dismiss it as "one dying dinosaur benefitting from another that is dying more quickly." But I think that misses the key point. Microsoft has focused on messaging for a long time. Exchange Sync made for a really good client play and the licensing of Exchange Sync to Apple and Google has helped Exchange become an even more entrenched standard for corporate email and groupware. Now a new Microsoft mobile device, with consumer credibility, may show how important the message/sync focus was. If this works, then Microsoft can focus on Android and iOS afterwards. And we'll see if the RIM-ex-pat momentum helps.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 08/31/2010

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