‘Smoked by Windows Phone 7’? Not So Fast.

This incident caught my attention, for a number of reasons. First off, the background – Microsoft runs ‘Smoked by Windows Phone 7‘ marketing push, extending to physical stores in the US. Members of the public are invited to bring their alternative mobile OS device there, be assigned a random ‘everyday’ task, and a store employee will challenge them to fulfil that task in a head-to-head challenge. Winners take a $1000 laptop, losers get the opportunity to trade in their phone for a WP7 device. No indication or preparation of the task is given to the public competitor.

The general idea is to show how ‘fast’ WP7 is at fulfilling this task. Questionable method – who wants to lose and be ‘smoked’? However, Microsoft further stacks the deck, they inform store staff on which tasks competitor’s phones excel at, so the staff know which tasks have the best chance of winning. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

One member of the public who untook the challenge, Sahas Katta, was assigned the task of ‘bringing up the weather of two different cities’. Arguably, this is not a task that an everyday person would be doing, but each to their own. Comments later reveal others who took the challenge also received unusual tasks, such as posting a status update AND sending a copy of it to yourself. Bizarre.

Unluckily for Microsoft (at least according to Katta’s account), he had two homescreen widgets on his Galaxy Nexus that day, showing the weather for two different cities in CA. In addition, he had removed the lockscreen entirely (an ICS option). A questionable practice by security standards, but not outside the rules. Thus, all he had to do was wake the phone to complete the challenge.

The Microsoft employee already had two ‘live tiles’ prepared, the WP7 equivalent of widgets, on their home screen, however they had to undertake the extra step of bypassing the lockscreen, an option unavailable on the WP device. It’s important to note that the employee had the phone pre-prepared with two weather tiles, this is NOT the default setting in WP7 – it was done specifically to win the challenge next to immediately.  Store employees, including the manager, then refuse to honour the prize. Claiming ‘just because’ and ‘the cities have to be in different states’. Clutching at straws perhaps. One suspects that their reluctant nature indicates either a win was entirely unexpected (not many people would have two weather widgets installed), or something else is afoot.

Katta posts on his blog, blogs pick up the story, Microsoft rep responds by Twitter, offering a ‘rematch’. A somewhat obnoxious gesture, equivalent to a ‘How about a best of 3?’ scenario. The bad publicity continues, Microsoft finally gives in and offers Katta a WP7 phone, a laptop and an apology. A somewhat poor way to recover the cost of a $1000 laptop, a fraction of a rounding error for Microsoft’s bottom line.

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OK, so what’s interesting about this? My thoughts:

The challenge itself was initially designed from the start NOT to fairly pit competing devices against their own. Their pre-brief to store employees shows this. Every possible advantage was pre-stacked in order for the WP7 device to win. Some reports also show that they forced competitors to join the store wifi network to upload a photo (another challenge), which was throttled to a snail’s pace, while the WP7 device used the much faster cellular network. This of course raises the question, if you are so confident of your product, you shouldn’t rely on gimmicks to prove this to the public, it will eventually backfire if anybody has half an idea what’s happening.

Naturally, Microsoft does not want to be giving out thousands of $1000 laptops unnecessarily, but aggressively competing against your own potential customers in rigged competitions is not the way to garner goodwill all. Microsoft’s approach to WP7 has been to ape what they believe are the strong points of iOS. Smooth and fluid GPU-acceleration transitions and (which give the impression of speed) and a shallow learning curve, which they are keen to capitalise on. However, in many other ways it’s simply inferior. Screen real-estate utilisation is abysmal, the system is even more locked down than iOS and lacks a huge amount of functionality as seen in Android. It’s really catered to the lowest common denominator.

The store employees in question may also be at fault. Whether they were ill-equipped to prepare for somebody who might actually win, or whether the store employees had themselves appropriated the laptops for their friends and were thus prone to making it impossible to everybody else to win, we’ll never know. Let’s give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and say they are investigating it. The well-being of a few front line grunts is trivial compared to the huge amount of negative publicity this has drawn.

Which brings us to the ‘WHY’. Let’s step back for a minute and consider Microsoft as a company. They have a strong foothold in the corporate environment and for home users, but where the technology is heading at a breakneck speed – towards mobile and cloud-based devices, they are a small time player. Their offerings are weak and poorly integrated. Having used a WP7.5 device at length, as well as run through the Windows 8 preview, there are many head-scratching decisions within. Their various offerings, such as Skydrive, Hotmail and Zune music, are clumsily integrated and not synchronised. No amount of graphical spit and polish will fix basic functionality absences.  There is an activation process on third-party device installations of WP7. Yes, this involves picking up the phone – sound familiar?

At each turn, Microsoft wants to remain as relevant as they can, even as they are losing browser market share (although temporary, note that Chrome was most popular on the weekend, when people had a choice what browser they could use) and struggling with mobile market share. There are hundreds of millions of mobile smartphones and tablets in a rapidly growing market, and a small fraction of those are using Microsoft’s solution. When competitors progress, Microsoft often out of nowhere, puts in their 2c to attempt to remain relevant. Their culture and hierarchy does not encourage innovation and rapid improvements, as their patent hoarding actions have shown. What they have is dinosaurs of yesteryear blindly defending their decisions.

I want competition in the marketplace, but this is not the way forward. Show us why your solutions are better, demonstrate to the public you can genuinely innovate and the results will naturally follow.

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3 thoughts on “‘Smoked by Windows Phone 7’? Not So Fast.

  1. Ridiculous marketing stunt and total fail to be sure. But WP7 (what little I have used it) is innovative in its own right. The clean interface/live tiles are attractive and the GPU acceleration for the OS does make things faster smoother. Honestly, WP7 OS is the underdog currently (even if it has a giant behind it) and as you said in your last paragraph, we need competition in the mobile space.

    Yes, Microsoft is slow to innovate, but you can’t say that they “don’t” innovate. Look at the Xbox, Windows 7, IE9, etc. They can change.

    Folks don’t think about it much, but most other companies (Google, Apple) started out as consumer driven and have only recently (within the past 5 – 10 years) started to focus on corporate/business level organizations.

    MS has had the corporate “burden” (and income) for many many years and their products (like WP7) often have to compete well in both spaces.

    Just my 2-cents. I am a bit of a Microsoft fan so I am sure I am biased :). I do hope they can keep up with the rapidly changing technological landscape. If not, the market could become pretty unbalanced.

    Cheers,

    Roman

    1. Thanks for the input Roman, great to hear. I agree that the GPU acceleration does make things smoother (as ICS improvements have shown, even on older devices), or at least lends to the ‘impression’ of smoothness – it’s something that all devices should have. It wasn’t that long ago where Windows Mobile 6/6.5 phones were the pinnacle of mobile OS’s from MS, with such glorious implementations such as duplicate close buttons on the same screen, labyrinths of menus and tiny click boxes – a prime example of being designed FOR engineers, not for the consumer. Microsoft can create good products, but the history of them doing so has been in response to market changes where absolutely necessary. For example, Firefox/Chrome chipping away IE share, then MS implements tabbed browsing and various improvements in IE (even so, they still continue to lose market share, and one could argue that their inherent lead has been because of their de-facto installation with Windows itself). Going back through the history of IE, from 1 up to 9, the substantial improvements in between each version have been increase compliance with standards. Truly ground-breaking improvements have always been following other’s footsteps. Example – as far as innovations go, it lacks the varied extension ecosystem of FF / Chrome – how many people use IE ‘accelerators’?. Likewise with the 360, the first version was a bomb and the 2nd built up a steady lead because they were first to market, helped along by the PS3’s horrendous starting price – something that helped them to build up a very solid online and multiplayer experience. The platform may be a success, but in terms of ‘innovation’ itself? HD-DVD, dashboard, Avatars and essentially the same hardware that’s coming up to 7 years old? My point is that innovation can be found, but it’s few and far between, the culture and organisational structure of this behemoth doesn’t lend itself well to it.

      Look how much Office has innovated over the years. It’s essentially the same, but with a ribbon interface. A quick play with Windows 8 (albeit a preview), it’s ‘revolutionary’ new OS under the fancy WP launcher, lies something exceptionally familiar to many of us. Even the multitude of Microsoft’s own services (such as Hotmail / Zune / Bing / Skydrive) aren’t tied together smoothly. Onto WP7 then – I’m confident that if iOS or Android had not been created, Microsoft would have stuck with the ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’ mentality and we’d be using an iteration of WM6.5 to this day. Only because consumers discovered that they didn’t have to put up with the flakiness of WM6.5 (and I’ve pulled out many hairs using Touch’s and HD2s) that WP7 was born. However, WP7 itself I believe, whilst it may gain some degree of popularity in the short term due to their partnership with Nokia within the low-end market, cannot compete in the long-term. Simply put – the high-end is owned by iOS and and some Android devices – WP7 cannot compete because it lacks the ecosystem, and it lacks the in-built capabilities to do more powerful or intuitive functions (see bluetooth sharing, customised launchers, even the basic layout requires unnecessary chains of swipes to get to common functions) – I believe it’s a system that’s so locked down and simple, that once the gloss and swish animations wear off, then there’s not much substance. The low-end was previously owned by feature phones (many of which run on Symbian OS) which are now transitioning to entry-level WP7 and Android devices, but it’s a tough space. However, I do believe that they can gain a foothold with the people who are not technically-savvy and want something simple, but want to avoid iOS products for various reasons.

      So stepping back, let’s have a look. Google is an advertising company, they make money from all platforms, so they are happy to give away Android for free. No matter what phones people use, chances are Google makes money anyway. Apple is a hardware and software company, they want to buy their hardware, lock you into the ecosystem and keep you buying every year. However, Microsoft is a software company first and foremost. They don’t make these WP7 devices, and the vast majority of their income (I can’t remember off the top of my head, but something like 70-80%) comes from licensing Windows and Office, especially to enterprise customers. Their ventures into other fields, such as Bing, have been a money pit to the sum of hundreds of millions of dollars a year that they are seeing little return of. On top of that, they know that the landscape is changing, so they are desperately seeking any avenue to remain relevant because people and businesses aren’t going to be using Windows and Office forever. So they think up stunts like this ‘Smoked by Windows Phone 7’ challenge to try to prove a point.

      Maybe the direction will change with Ballmer leaving and Sinofsky taking the lead, but maybe by then it’ll be too late. I’m not willing to write off Windows or WP7 completely, but I do believe that companies should be called out when required.

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