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Five ways Microsoft can rescue Windows Phone

A critical success, a market dud. Here's what Redmond should do next

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3. We need to talk about the UI

The Metro UI for Windows Phone has been justifiably praised for being clean and distinctive. Microsoft is extending it across more products, most controversially, into Windows 8. But in extended use, I found myself using the phone less than I expected, because I simply didn't want to read text on the screen. This realisation came quite subtly, and was unexpected.

Here's what I think is the issue.

Some things in the world are theoretically human-readable, but nobody ever reads them. Postscript source code is one example, the fiction of Cory Doctorow another. Metro turned out to be a little like this. It is a UI designed to be glanced at, and it fulfils that very well.

But it makes poor use of the space available. My preferred WP Twitter app Rowl shows me three tweets at a time. You do have to pinch yourself that you're using an 800x480 pixel screen. Entire newspapers were being laid out on VGA screens (or smaller - many were Mac Classics) 25 years ago - but this is a poor use of space.

The font is for glancing, not for reading, and the white-on-black colour scheme doesn't help.

There's too much thumbing going on. The default WP home screen shows you eight options. A thumb press will show you eight more options or twelve by revealing the Apps List. The default iPhone screen shows you 16, and a swipe 16 more. Android also shows much more. And from the Blackberry OS 7.0, I can change almost any setting by swiping from the top.

Now none of this is catastrophic - and it's all fixable. Choose a better body font, change some of the proportions, and vary the size of home screen tiles - all would help enormously. But first, admit there's room for improvement.

If you want to make the phone an "immersive experience", as per the jargon, don't punish users for getting wet.

4. Give it all away?

"You can't compete with free" is a cliche in the content world. And it's proved one of the most misleading. Android is nominally given away for free, making Microsoft's paid-for licensing model almost seem like an anachronism. Smartphone platforms are given away for free, or not given away at all.

But this argument is misleading. Android isn't free at all, the patent uncertainties require ODMs to pay third parties - including Microsoft. This is a long way from being resolved.

So although one option is to go royalty-free, it's one Microsoft doesn't have to take. Not when there are more creative options on the table.

5. Telcos hate smartphones. They don't have to hate yours

Telcos like growth, but they view smartphones very ambivalently. Once the pesky users have one - all they want to do is use it - the impertinence! - while the value of the services we use is captured by everyone except the telcos. So mobile operators have rapidly found themselves in same funk as broadband ISPs - who want punters to sign up (as long as the acquisition cost is low), and who don't want them to leave, but who want them to use the network as little as possible while they're there.

It's a mug's game: spending billions on network upgrades but seeing the value realised by device manufacturers (Apple) or ad networks (Google). The mobile network operators don't want to be dumb bit-pipes - which is all they will be in Apple and Google's future.

It doesn't have to be like this - and Microsoft has an ace up its sleeve, with a messaging platform almost everybody in the world has heard of: Skype. It might be time to start thinking about some radical initiatives.

Here's one: why exactly is Microsoft licensing Skype? Why is it even tolerating it? It paid a lot of money to acquire this proprietary VoIP messaging platform, and sees no advantage from it. How about raising the fees for Skype for some or all non-Windows mobile platforms? One of the first things Steve Jobs did in 1997 to stabilise Apple was to stop licensing MacOS and kill the clones.

And messaging is just one example. Advertising and media could benefit from some sort of semi-open shared platform on the wholesale side. This is something Microsoft and Nokia have thought about, so the idea shouldn't be alien. But it makes sense to move value up the stack. When all smartphones look alike, one with an attractive bundle of messaging and content should be able to stand out from the crowd. We might even pay a pound or two more for it.

shutterstock_recue_pic_plus_nokia_image

It's sink or swim time for Windows Phone ... Background image via Shutterstock

The verdict

Of course, Windows Phone might not need any of this. Perhaps it's just not being seen, and will sell gazillions of units once people see it. Perhaps simply throwing more money at development and marketing will do. It worked for Xbox.

But Xbox was a success that was years in the making, soaking up billions of dollars of capital. Nobody involved in WP has this luxury. Nokia is fighting a battle on three fronts - and haemorrhaged €1bn last year - and Nokia is absolutely key to WP's success. Although it has cash in the bank, it can't fight on with this kind burn rate.

We know from WebOS, or BeOS, or many technically wonderful predecessors that won rave reviews from the critics only to perish in the marketplace, that being good isn't enough. These are interesting times - the opportunity is there. ®

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