Windows Phone 7's best feature? It's not made by Google
'Tiles and hubs' aside, it's really fast and easy
Analysis Punters who walk up to a Windows Phone in a fortnight are going to get a nice surprise. It's quite a pleasure to use - and certainly easier to use than describe.
Microsoft has loaded Windows Phone 7 with jargon that's more obfuscatory than explanatory, such as tiles and hubs. The "tiles" are really just widgets, and the "hubs" are really just application welcome screens (RegHardware has a nice explanation in its hands-on, here). Forget the jargon, though, WP7 is fast and easy to use.
The designers have realised that much of what matters today is the user experience, and the redesign reflects that simplicity. Microsoft has another reason to be optimistic - phone purchasers today are really buying mobile computers with poor battery life (a historical weakness for Windows CE), dubious call quality (ditto) but high functionality (a traditional CE strength). Microsoft should enjoy this playing field rather more than the one it faced in 2006, when only a handful of users bought its power-guzzler Windows Mobile devices - invariably as a second phone.
Microsoft's immediate competition in the battle for OEMs and developers is an old one - Symbian. Only Symbian doesn't represent, as it once did, the future roadmap for 80 per cent of the industry's mobile phone manufacturers by market share. Symbian doesn't even represent the future roadmap of its sole remaining sponsor. In bringing WP7 to market, Microsoft has comprehensively stolen a march on Nokia by offering something new a full year before Nokia's similar ground-up rewrite, Symbian^4, hits the shelves - and six months (at least) before its Meego phones provide real competition. Such is the price of complacency for Nokia. The battle between Symbian and Microsoft was once the one that mattered - but now they're fighting for relevance. Microsoft is most acutely aware of this, for Windows Mobile has lost more market share than anyone else in the past few years.
But the ancient rivals also have something else in common - and it's their distinctive selling point. They're not Google. Operators are delighted that Google offers them a slick looking smartphone OS, and that OEMs have created a vibrant marketplace for Android apps. The downside is that operators are getting nervous.
The French newspaper Le Figaro reported last month that the CEO of Orange (France Télécom), Stephane Richard, had invited the heads of three competing operators to establish the creation of their own common OS, viewing both iOS and Android as "Trojan horses". The fear is that customers will have relationships with Apple and Google, rather than the carrier, reducing the operators to the status of bit carrier. But it doesn't follow that developing yet another OS is the best response to being cut out of the service layer. (Such distinctions elude many non-specialist reporters and here we must assume that the report is accurate).
It would be stranger still considering the failure, over the years, of operator-led mobile operating systems. SavaJe never got off the ground, and LiMO hasn't delivered the goods for Vodafone, which scrapped two 360 models based on the Linux.
But why should they bother to roll their own, when Microsoft and Symbian are too happy to be not-Google, too?
Admittedly it's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for the operators. The people who brought you WAP and walled gardens have consistently failed to develop new, interesting and useful services of their own, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming by Apple to where they are today. The smartphone market only became a mass market after there was a truly easy-to-use device - but also because data plans are now bundled with devices, and removed the "sticker shock" fear of high data bills. Apple arm-wrestled the operators into these deals, and set the standard - the smartphone user now taking out a contract expects a reasonable amount of data to be included in the price.
The networks complain about services dealing directly with the customer - but that's exactly what services do. How many operator-created services can you name that have captured the popular imagination? 3 is consistently the most innovative operator, but it's partnered (with Microsoft, Skype and Spotify) rather than developed its own services. And Orange Wednesdays doesn't count - it's not a service, it's a marketing promotion.
If operators fear that Google and Apple are sucking value out of the service layer, then they should develop their own. There's little point in trying to ape Facebook or Twitter. But there's plenty of opportunity for being an enabler to established business services that need some kind of voice or data communication - your bank, supermarket or insurance company for example. There are other gaps to be filled, such as such as backup. And it's astonishing that realtime group messaging is owned by Blackberry, with its BBM. Texts have been bundled for years now, so why allow a proprietary manufacturer to own what should be an open industry standard?
The role of the operator is much diminished, but it's still the best hope for Microsoft and other platform companies seeking to elbow Android aside. For now, the advantage for Microsoft is a negative one - they're not someone else. ®