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WP7 vs Android: a struggle for supremacy

Microsoft must not throw away its best chance to outwit Google

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Microsoft may be pandering to carriers by backing away from controlled updates, but predictable user experience is the best way to win fans from fragmented Android. Google can no longer dismiss criticisms of OS strategy from majors such as Netflix.

For all its flaws, one attraction of Google‘s "carrier-lite" sales model for the Nexus One was that it freed users from the whim of the operator or handset maker when waiting for software updates. Google has never ceased to ram that point home, with new Android releases and enhancements consistently turning up on the small base of Nexus Ones out there, well ahead of any carrier‘s update program. But generally, there is little incentive for carriers or OEMs to upgrade devices – vendors would rather users bought a new phone, and so would operators as long as it comes with a new data plan.

Now Microsoft has waded into the mire of confusion that surrounds OS update policies, with its new Windows Phone 7, as it seeks to strike a balance between openness and control. And Nokia‘s new system of a "continuous stream" of Symbian modifications, rather than one or two big releases a year, may be even trickier to manage.

Microsoft, being Microsoft, is being heavily criticised – by some for being too prescriptive about WP7, by others for giving carriers some freedom to decide when and whether to release WP7 enhancements. The latter has been a downside of the free-for-all approach of Android, and partly responsible for the fragmentation of the Google OS base. The number and variety of Android devices make OS updates a complex matter, especially when dealing with carriers such as Verizon Wireless, which are famously careful about testing any changes that may affect their networks. Each Android release has to be separately adapted by the vendor for each individual handset, and then that combination must be tested by the cellco, which may also add its own code or overlays. Result – fragmentation, unpredictable and sometimes long waits for updates, and annoyance at carriers‘ fiddling with the Android experience.

Microsoft's OS updates policy

Microsoft can be more dictatorial than Google, since it controls its platform, but it does have to deal with multiple vendors and model designs. It also, as an also-ran in the smartphone game, has to be rather more conciliatory towards cellcos than Apple. The latter issues iOS updates centrally with no reference to the operators. While that is a source of some carrier discomfort, reinforcing Apple‘s ability to use its market strength to ignore their interests, it is generally popular with consumers.

At the launch of WP7, it was clear that Microsoft was trying to please all parties, though ensuing debates suggest it has failed. The firm claimed it would be able to manage the user experience better than Google has, because it would keep control of updates and would impose strict rules on its OEM partners. Indeed, vendors have to follow some surprisingly rigid guidelines on WP7 handsets, choosing between three standardised hardware chassis for different grades of phone, and adhering to strict rules on the user interface. These rules bring an element of quality control that is missing from Android, Microsoft supporters argue, and enable the firm to differentiate WP7 with its key innovation, its hub-based UI, the first major modern user experience not to emulate the iPhone‘s.

However, the risk is that Microsoft alienates powerful partners by giving them too little room to differentiate themselves (HTC‘s famous Sense UI has been a big driver of sales for its Android and Windows Mobile phones, but is hidden in a lower layer on WP7). The software giant may also be falling into its old trap of overestimating how much consumers love its user experiences.

IDC analyst Nick McQuire commented in an interview: "Microsoft has a big challenge ahead to build a relationship directly with consumers. To do that, it needs to make sure that user experience is really tight and clean and very Microsoft."

But being "very Microsoft" may be precisely what puts some consumers off.

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