By John Gruber
Atoms: We are not selling shoes this time…
Good for Microsoft for starting over with a truly new UI and new developer APIs. There’s an old saying that when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Microsoft found themselves in a hole the day Apple unveiled the iPhone, but continued digging for three more years. Better late than never, though.
Just about any new UI would be better than the existing Windows Mobile UI. But basing the new Windows Phone 7 UI on the Zune raises the question of why they think it’s going to fare any better than, well, the Zune.
Renaming the platform from “Windows Mobile” to “Windows Phone 7 Series” makes it even less applicable than ever to non-phone mobiles, like the iPod Touch. I think the iPod Touch is the single greatest strength of the iPhone OS platform. You can argue that phones like the Nexus One and Pre Plus are worthy rivals to the iPhone 3GS, but there is no rival to the iPod Touch. Now, admittedly, Apple’s mobile OS has “phone” in its name too, so I suppose there’s no reason why someone might not make a non-phone device running the “Windows Phone” OS, but it seems shortsighted to me. The only logical explanation I can think of is that Microsoft only plans to license the OS for use on actual phones, and they’re going to pull an Apple with non-phone devices for this platform with their Zune brand.
The bigger naming question: Why name it “Windows” anything? If Microsoft is going for a clean break, why not a new non-“Windows” name? I think it shows just how perverse Microsoft’s obsession with “Windows” is. There’s no good way to leverage their Windows PC OS monopoly to extend it to mobile, other than the name, so they’re sticking with it. It doesn’t even make literal sense. The whole point of the “Windows” name is that it was for a system whose UI revolved around the concept of on-screen windows. There are no windows in the Windows Phone 7 interface. (There’s also no Start menu in the WP7 UI; that was the linchpin of UI similarity between Windows (for PCs) and Windows Mobile.)
A new non-Windows name would have let Microsoft use a 1.0 version number. I think the “7” in “Windows Phone 7 Series” is a detriment to their message that this is a clean break from Windows Mobile 6 and earlier. The 7 implies “new version of the old thing”, which isn’t what they want at all because the old thing is unloved and unpopular. A new 1.0 thing would have also dampened uncomfortable questions about why phones available today won’t be upgradeable to the new system when it ships.
That (a) Windows Phone 7 units aren’t expected until late this year (and think about what happens if the schedule slips); and (b) current Windows Mobile 6.5 phones will not be upgradeable suggests that Windows Mobile phones aren’t going to have a good year, sales-wise. Windows Mobile sales and market share were already in steep decline; the Osborne Effect isn’t going to help.
Perhaps in the long run it doesn’t matter just how badly Windows Mobile handsets sell between now and the debut of Windows Phone 7 handsets. But on the other hand, the last thing Microsoft needs in the weeks and months leading up to the new handsets debuting is bad press about tanking “Windows Mobile” sales. (Another reason why it would have been a good idea to use a new brand name.)
When the iPhone debuted, there were no popular phones based primarily on a large touchscreen. Now, nearly all new smartphones share the same basic form: a roughly 3.5-inch touchscreen. (Non-touchscreen BlackBerries are the biggest exception.) Many include a hardware keyboard, but the touchscreen is the starting point. The Windows Phone 7 software doesn’t look like the iPhone’s much at all. But the hardware is pretty much an iPhone with two extra buttons (Back and Search). One advantage Windows Phone 7 may have over Android is that WP7 was designed with this form factor — the large touchscreen — as a baseline assumption. All major Android phones on the market have this form factor too, but the Android OS itself was designed to be abstract enough not to require a touchscreen at all. That’s handicapped Android in terms of things like text editing, which requires the use of a trackball or direction pad instead of a pure touch interface.
The big three mobile platforms right now are iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android. (Feel free to add Nokia as a fourth.) I think Windows Phone 7 is most competitive with Android, because that’s the one with the same business model: licensing the OS to OEM hardware makers. They’re even competing for attention from the very same hardware makers, especially HTC. Google’s been undercutting Microsoft with free (or nearly free) services for a few years now: Google Docs against Office, Gmail for Business against Exchange, and soon, Chrome OS against Windows. But this one, Android vs. Windows Mobile, is the first one where Google seems poised to take the lead. Windows Phone 7 doesn’t just have to be better than Android, it has to be better enough to convince handset makers that it’s worth the licensing fees.