Why 2012 may not be the year of the Windows Phone

Watch out now, because this is probably going to descend into a rant.

Task – Windows Phone. Microsoft. Discuss.

Most of my day is spent looking around the web to try and get a handle on the “vibe” and what’s going on in the mobile market. Now, I’ll be up-front here and admit that I like Android and use the Galaxy SII as my daily handset. It’s phenomenal. Sure, battery life could be better but it’s a stunning bit of kit.

The iPhone is also a great bit of kit and yes, yes, yes, Windows Phone is good too.

Windows Phone, as you may have noticed recently, is getting a broadly positive welcome from reviewers and critics. There’s now an almost constant stream of news posts, blogs and reports which applaud Windows Phone. Recently many have declared 2012 to be the ”Year of Windows Phone” and that the Lumia devices from Nokia will win ”Phone of the year”. Today Forbes has chipped in with another article proudly touting Windows Phone as the “next big thing”. It all smells a little fishy to me. In my darker moments I can’t help remembering the millions that had been set aside for the launch of the Lumia 800 here in Europe. Where did it all go? I’m certainly not tripping over Windows Phone adverts on my daily commute or when I’m browsing the web. Has some of that marketing money found it’s way into the pockets of website Editors? I’m wrong, of course…. aren’t I?

Charlie Kindel makes some.. interesting points about Android and Apple. He’s obviously a big fan of Windows Phone, and berates the path that Android has chosen because out tries to be “everything to everyone” with extreme flexibility for both consumers, networks and manufacturers. That’s something that Windows Mobile tried to be, and something that Charlie accepts is a little ironic. Why? Well, because Windows Mobile suddenly hit the wall and died. Charlie argues that continual, uncontrolled Android fragmentation will cause more and more problems for the platform.

Why 2012 may not be the year of the Windows Phone

That, though, isn’t the whole truth. See, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been to Microsoft HQ a number of times. I’ve spoken to their mobile teams face-to-face in Redmond. We knew what was happening, we could see out ask around us as customers. The iPod was generating a massive user base, then the iPhone appeared and, even before the apps arrived, people bought it. Microsoft did nothing. The App Store appeared, the iPhone 3G.. Microsoft did nothing. Windows Mobile continued to walk the Green Mile, and despite our un-ending rants, recommendations and questions, nothing was done after we left Seattle. HTC tried valiantly to keep Microsoft alive, adding a heap of customizations to the HTC HD2, but this was 2009, and the writing was on the wall. Eventually, a year later, Windows Phone was announced.

Why 2012 may not be the year of the Windows Phone

This is where the differences are, Android, love it or hate it, continues to innovate, upgrade and change their OS. Yes, this can cause fragmentation. Yes, this can annoy consumers too. Networks add their ”tweaks”, manufacturers add their UI’s and skins and suddenly the user experience between Android handsets is very different, plus the upgrade path becomes very muddy. A new OS update won’t just appear (ala iPhone or even Windows Phone), it’ll have to go through the manufacturer and network checks first.

Microsoft are stuck to some degree. They can’t push the networks around like Apple did, and they’ve refused to bend over for ”tweaks” and UI changes. This makes it hard for manufacturers to make a “Samsung phone” or a “HTC phone”. What you get instead is a Windows Phone, made by someone…does it really matter who?

Apple have it all wrapped up. They are now the BMW or Mercedes of the computing world. When I attend Press events or visit Microsoft I see a sea of Apple logos because, quite simply, they have the X-Factor. They do the job well, they get updated, they look amazing and…to hell with the cost.

There’s another key difference. Now sure, it’s a company called Foxconn who make the iPhone for Apple but…. ooohh.. look.. Apple logo.. Shiny….

Apple don’t have to worry about upsetting manufacturers, because they make it. They don’t have to worry about the networks, because the networks want to sell them. They don’t even have to worry too much about upsetting consumers, because we will buy it anyway. The brand is strong.

So there are two approaches that appear to be working. The iPhone way, with manufacturing and updates under the control of one company, or the Android way, where manufacturers are free to customize the OS and make it ”their” phone, with possible fragmentation and staggered updates.

Can Windows Phone push forward with a third way? Personally, I really don’t think so. Microsoft took a big decision with Windows Phone and took aim directly at the consumer, the average Joe. A consistent, familiar interface across the phone and a user interface that remains throughout.

Microsoft have lost their business users. I now see business people attending meetings with iPads and iPhones. It may not be the best solution to their needs, but everyone wants them. It wasn’t so long ago that those business-people had Pocket PC’s and Microsoft Smartphones.

Word has it that Microsoft are to splash the cash to sales reps in order to push units. This, in my opinion, is rapidly edging towards dangerous territory. If you go to the shop and want an iPhone but come out with a Windows Phone, would you keep it? Would you feel happy when you realise that your favourite apps just aren’t there? “Where’s that thing I saw on the TV where you get to talk to the phone?” Faith will soon be lost.

Have you ever really liked anything you’ve been pressured into buying?

Mark my words. 2012 will not be the “Year of Windows Phone”. I predict that LG, Samsung and HTC will slowly tire of making a phone which doesn’t help their brand. They can’t add their own “stamp” onto the phone – not to the extent they can with Android. Will they be happy with people saying..

“Hey, look at my Windows Phone”

“Who makes that?”

“Err… Not sure.. ”

For Nokia this isn’t a problem, but the increasingly cosy Nokia and MS relationship won’t please the other partners. If they start to reduce the use of Windows Phone, Microsoft will have to seriously think about making Nokia their Foxconn.