For those of us who’ve been using smart phones for a while, it’s not too hard to remember the early days (say 2004), when Windows Mobile just seemed so promising. You could get a phone with a camera and a nice color screen, read news on the web, and use your Exchange email and calendar. They even showed you your next appointment on the home screen, played your WMA music, and made IM work pretty well. I clearly remember having a beer on a bar stool one night while waiting for a friend to arrive, and IMing from my 12-key Windows Mobile phone to a college buddy on his computer 3 timezones away. Around the same time, I remember checking updated news about the war in Iraq every morning and afternoon during my bus commute. A few years later I upgraded to an AT&T Blackjack (which could run Google maps!) and had a secret crush on the T-Mobile Dash. The developers I was working with on BREW and J2ME applications at the time would speak longingly of what a great development platform Windows Mobile was and wonder how soon I thought we’d be starting on a Windows Mobile product…
Now that it’s Q3 2010, iPhones/Pads/Pods are breaking all kinds of sales, app use, and internet use records, nearly all the new smart phones in the US seem to run Android, and BlackBerry is somehow still sitting on top as the US smart phone market leader. Much has already been written about Microsoft’s problems in the phone OS market, and as they say, hindsight is 20/20, so I won’t rehash any of their past decisions or potential alternate histories here. Instead I want to offer Microsoft a plan for securing a winning place in the US mobile ecosystem. The plan is pretty simple actually.
It’s “be the new BlackBerry.”
Microsoft has new leadership in their mobile division for in Windows Phone 7, and has produced a significant set of advances in terms of the UI model and app development platforms. Engineers are again talking about how it’s nice to build apps for Windows Phone (now as Silverlight apps), and people who play with the phones tend to say they’re impressed and the interface is good. Meanwhile, RIM’s been putting out too little, too late ever since the original iPhone was released. I tried switching to a BlackBerry as my primary phone two years ago and just could not deal with the inferior calendar, web browser, and lack of apps. The Storm wasn’t very useable with that push-the-whole-screen-down-harder model, and the Torch is OK if you have to have a BlackBerry, but it’s not going to attract new users. So of all the options in front of Microsoft in terms of what to focus on – I think there’s a clear choice.
Is 35% of the US smart phone market and strong worldwide share a worthy goal for Microsoft? It would be the kind of business comeback Harvard MBA students could study for the next 20 years. Is Microsoft technology accepted in large organizations or locked down private companies with IT staffs? Yep. Can Microsoft offer better email and calendar and contacts apps than BlackBerry? Yep. A full browser experience? Yep. Can they come out with an energized app store? Maybe, maybe not – but at least they have a chance to woo developers with the Silverlight model, and they can absolutely provide the best mobile platform for in-house IT apps built by large companies, the best set of connectors to the corporate IT infrastructure that’s there, and the best tool set for deployment, monitoring, security, upgrade, and lock-down.
So what are the hurdles for Microsoft in pursuing the beat BlackBerry strategy?
(1) Microsoft could get caught up in a bad strategy: e.g. they could try to beat iPhone, and if they do, they’ll likely fail. Just like with the Zune efforts, the market will probably perceive them as an inferior copier of the thing people really want to own. Microsoft will invest a ton of money, innovate in lots of ways that won’t matter and for which they won’t get credit, and continue to lose market share.
(2) Microsoft could think of this as just a software platform business, and the results could disappoint consumers again. If a few slow, crappy phones get released in the early days of Windows Phone 7, most people will write off the platform for another 2-3 years. BlackBerry and Apple control their hardware, and Microsoft has to at least take a “no dogs allowed” approach to approving use of their platform if they want to succeed here.
(3) the percentage of BlackBerry customers who are hardcore fans and unwilling to switch to a new phone could be significant. Ah – but #3 is the kind of thing you can figure out for sure with a little market research. My gut tells me the die-hard BlackBerry fan base is small and skews toward older users, whereas a heck of a lot of people use BlackBerry because “that’s what they gave me at work.”
In any case, I wish Microsoft luck with their Windows Phone efforts. All this competition between well-funded players is ultimately good for the market and the consumers.
— Mike Arcuri.