The smartphone market has been evolving into two distinct model. There’s the end-to-end integrated approach, exemplified by Apple and blackBerry, where one company makes the hardware and software and controls the sale of distribution of apps. Then there’s the platform approach, followed by Android and, until recently, Microsoft, where one company puts out software for hardware makers to implement, more or less, as they will.
For a while, the unified approach seemed like a distinct winner, with the runaway success of the iPhone and continued strong sales of BlackBerrys. Hewlett-Packard was sufficiently impressed that it bought Palm to have a platform where it could control hardware and software. But the recent surge of Android has very much revived the debate. (Symbian, with its tangled history of being owned and not owned by Nokia, is hard to fit into this model.)
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft seems to be looking for a middle course–or, perhaps, to have it both ways. Officially, Windows Phone 7, like its Windows Mobile predecessor, is a typical Microsoft platform. But the announcement on Oct. 11 and the first batch of WP7 phones made it clear that Microsoft has exercising much stricter control over the hardware than it did in the past.
The initial WP7 handsets–from HTC, Samsung, LG, and Dell–are fundamentally more alike than different. Microsoft lets manufacturers choose whether to include physical keyboards of not. Four of the 10 models announced at launch have keyboards, three that slide out horizontally (landscape) and one, the unusual Dell Venue Pro, has one that slides down vertically. But otherwise, the phones are quite similar. All have capacitive multitouch displays ranging from 3.5″ to 4.3″, all have either 8 or 16 GB of storage, all have 5 or 8 megapixel cameras. All have similar innards, built around a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.
Most important, all of the phones come with the same basic software. While they vary a bit in the preloaded applications–for example, there’s a nifty U-verse mobile TV app that is unique to AT&T offerings–there will be no customized user interfaces like the ones HTC, Samsung, and Motorola have installed on some Android phones. Like iPhone–and unlike Android–Microsoft, not the carriers or manufacturers, will control the flow of software updates to the phones.
For Microsoft, this is a critical break with tradition. But the company realizes that one reason the Windows Mobile platform stagnated was the lack of commonality among phones. There were handsets with and without touchscreens and with displays of various shapes and sizes. This meant there really was no such thing as a Windows Mobile target device for developers in a world where third-party apps became more and more important to the whole handset ecosystem.
Microsoft also seems to wat to avoid the growing chaos that is the Android world. The current version of Android is 2.2, but Google is continuing to let manufacturers release devices running version 1.6. Upgrades are at the discretion the carriers, leading to a profusion of OS versions in use; sometimes the same handset will be running different software versions on different carriers. The result is a serious challenge for developers who cannot write software for anything resembling a unified Android market.
I think Microsoft faces big challenges as a late entrant to a market in a phone market that is already crowded with good products. But in its desire to impose more control over the hardware, it seems to be going for one thing that was never a top priority in the past–a great user experience. That won’t guarantee success but it is an essential ingredient if Microsoft is to have a chance.