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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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Uneasy compromises with carriers

Like Apple, Google and even Nokia, Microsoft does want to make its own brand the primary one for the user base, driving their user experience and the kind of applications and services they access. But it is very unclear, as yet, whether WP7 will be sufficiently appealing to create that relationship, in the way that Apple has.

In the mean time, Microsoft remains reliant on the goodwill of the cellcos, which really do control the user relationship in most parts of the high end (postpaid) mobile base. As Google found with Nexus One, and even Apple with its aborted embedded SIM plan (see separate item), the carriers cannot be excised too hastily from the mobile value chain.

That means Microsoft has to engage in some uneasy compromises in its policy towards OS changes and other updates such as security releases. Its official line is: "Microsoft will push Windows Phone 7 software updates to end users and all Windows Phone 7 devices will be eligible for updates."

Small changes would be delivered over the air and larger ones by USB through the Zune software. Updates will still need to be supported technically and tested, though, and that can be a complex task, even if there are unlikely to be as many WP7 modifications as Android ones.

So the reality may not be so simple. Already, Microsoft has pulled back on over the air updates and bug fixes, for now at least, making the phone dependent on a PC. And earlier this month, attendees at a WP7 reviewers‘ workshop found that carriers will now be able to hold back updates in some circumstances, indicating confusion in the Microsoft strategy. Joe Belfiore, director of Windows Phone program management, was quoted by the ArsTechnica blog as saying: "We build updates for all Windows Phone users, but must certify them with the carriers. They'll happen on a regular cadence like they do on the PC. If a carrier wants to stop an update they can. But they will get it out on the next release."

He added: "Carriers could in fact block updates to sell you a phone. That can happen. But we don't expect that to happen. We are not going to push updates onto carrier networks that they have not tested."

He made a clear call to the carrier to justify the additional flexibility they appear to have won, saying: "Microsoft is being very trusting of the carriers here. This is very different from the situation with Windows Mobile where every phone was very different. With Windows Phone, there is no impact on OEM code, network code, and so on. Yes, there are upgrades that will require a full test pass. But most will not."

The underlying message seems clear – Microsoft will be less heavy-handed with operators than Apple, but it does not expect them to abuse that position, since WP7 should not present genuine technical difficulties on the networks.

In other words, Microsoft‘s softening is in the interests of keeping carriers happy, not avoiding genuine problems for end users. Since first wave WP7 handsets are so similar, because of the design guidelines, it would be perfectly feasible for all the updates to be centrally managed from Zune servers, bypassing operators. Microsoft has moved on significantly from the anarchy of Windows Mobile, where every device was so different that it needed separate testing, and there was no commonality of experience for users. With Android emulating the WinMo model, Microsoft has an opportunity to market WP7‘s more controlled, consumer friendly approach as a serious differentiator. It must be careful not to lose that advantage by being too accommodating to the cellcos.

Android fragmentation

The specific issues of OS updates highlights wider concerns about Android, which Google needs to address to prevent consumer irritation becoming fury – thus opening opportunities for Apple, Microsoft and Nokia to bite back. Nearly all the major concerns relate to fragmentation, caused by Android‘s open source nature and Google‘s relentless upgrade process. Not only are there multiple and incompatible releases in the market at any one time, but operators and OEMs add their own tweaks too, and most software vendors struggle to keep up with all the variations.

Some issues will be addressed naturally as the platform gains maturity, but ironically, the solution Google itself favors is to increase its control over the user experience the OEMs and operators deliver – bringing it closer to Apple and Microsoft. But if it really succeeds in imposing common rules about Android 3.0 implementation, it could alienate some of its largest supporters. Already, Samsung is indicating that it will weight its handset release roadmap for 2011 towards WP7, despite the success of its Android based Galaxy S. In other words, it is easy to forget, amid the progress of Android and iOS, that smartphones are a very young market and many players are still jostling for position. It is not yet a foregone conclusion that Android will keep its lead, and Google‘s decisions on how to balance control versus anarchy will be as important as Microsoft‘s in deciding the fortunes of their respective OSs.

Android fragmentation hit the spotlight again in the past couple of weeks as two high-profile apps providers complained that the multiple incompatible versions of the platform made their task impossible.

Casual games developer Rovio Mobile said it would create a lightweight Android version of its flagship title Angry Birds because consumers with older handsets were experiencing such bad performance issues. "With our latest update, we worked hard to bring Angry Birds to even more Android devices. Despite our efforts, we were unsuccessful in delivering optimal performance," Rovio wrote on its blog.

It listed more than a dozen Android smartphones that could not be supported, including all those with release 1.6 or below, or with custom ROMs. Angry Birds is available for iPhone and Symbian and has received over 7 million downloads.

Video-streaming king Netflix is also out of patience with Android. Although its Watch Instantly subscription service is available on about 200 connected consumer devices, it is still struggling with the Google OS. In the mobile space, it supports the iPhone and iPad, Symbian, WP7 and others, but it says Android suffers too much from device fragmentation and lack of a common digital rights management (DRM) solution.

In a blog post, Netflix‘ product development manager Greg Peters wrote: "The hurdle has been the lack of a generic and complete platform security and content protection mechanism available for Android. The same security issues that have led to piracy concerns on the Android platform have made it difficult for us to secure a common DRM system on these devices. Setting aside the debate around the value of content protection and DRM, they are requirements we must fulfill in order to obtain content from major studios for our subscribers to enjoy."

He also pointed to the problems of fragmentation, especially when carriers add their own features. "Unfortunately, this ... leads to a fragmented experience on Android, in which some handsets will have access to Netflix and others won‘t. This clearly is not the preferred solution, and we regret the confusion it might create for consumers. However, we believe that providing the service for some Android device owners is better than denying it to everyone."

In a world where content delivery, especially video, will be at the heart of the mobile experience, such complaints are serious ones. In the short term, some OEMs or carriers may welcome the chance to lure users to upgrade to a new phone that does support a key app like Netflix, but overall they will be wary of any signs of consumer and developer backlash.

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