Windows Phone 7: Too Big to Fail?

Depending on who you talk to, the launch of Windows Phone 7 this past fall has either gone quite well or has been a complete and utter disaster. Of course, I'm presenting this like it's some kind of debate, but if you've been paying attention to the news, it's been all bad. By all accounts, in fact, Windows Phone 7 is careening toward inevitable disaster.

Windows Phone has what it takes to succeed in the market from technical and consumer experience standpoints, so the naysaying doesn't bother me too much, except for one important thing: In this day and age, there's precious little reasonable discourse out there, and sensationalism sells. And with Microsoft taking the high road—i.e. not saying a thing, one way or the other—those hoping to find out what's really happening have little to go on.

This is important because Microsoft is trying to establish Windows Phone as one of an estimated three or four smartphone platforms that will be able to carry on successfully going forward. (The top two, of course, are Google Android and Apple iPhone, in that order, and the fourth player is often seen as either Nokia or RIM Blackbery.)

There's precious little evidence that Microsoft is establishing itself as a player of this caliber right now, however. Sales are reported to be low, and certainly far, far lower than either Android or iPhone, which see hundreds of thousands of device activations each day. Microsoft, again, is not saying.

Microsoft, too, is positioning Windows Phone as a consumer device first, pitting it squarely against those more established players in a market that is both trendy and fickle. That's arguably the right strategy, given that consumers are buying smartphones in droves, and are bringing them to work. But it also sacrifices one of the few strengths Microsoft had with its previous mobile platform, Windows Mobile.

Indeed, for businesses, Windows Phone is a mixed bag right now. It supports only a subset of the available Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies that most corporations would require, and in fact supports fewer of these policies, currently, than either Android or the iPhone. Some key missing policies include those concerning device and storage encryption and complex password requirements. It's also missing some key Exchange 2010 functionality like Conversation View in email, which seems kind of crazy.

(For more information about which EAS polices Windows Phone 7 supports, please refer to the TechNet document Exchange ActiveSync Considerations When Using Windows Phone 7 Clients. Also worth looking at is Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync Client Comparison Table, which doesn't (yet) list Windows Phone 7 but does compare EAS support between other smartphone platforms.)

It gets worse.


When Microsoft delivered a woefully incomplete 1.0 release of Windows Phone in October, it promised to quickly fix problems, add missing features, and address user concerns via a series of software updates. Indeed, at the Windows Phone 7 launch event, I and several other reviewers were told point blank that Microsoft planned to ship "a compelling update very, very soon." That update has yet to appear, let alone any other updates, despite the fact that users have documents dozens of problems with the current system. Rumor has it that the first planned update, adding copy and paste support, won't even ship until January at the earliest.

My many Windows Phone queries to Microsoft's PR firm have largely gone unanswered, and I've had to re-ask and re-ask the same questions, finally just giving up in many cases out of frustration over the silence. It's OK, Microsoft, I can take a hint. You don't want to talk about Windows Phone's problems. Message received.

With Microsoft ignoring its supporters and refusing to discuss sales, or its plans to fix problems and add missing features, what we're left with is the din and noise of the Internet rumor mills, which as noted above are filled with nothing but bad news. Goldman Sachs technology analyst Sarah Friar this week said that Windows Phone would never exceed single digit market share next year. Developers are reporting sales and download figures for their games and apps, and most have been woefully small. (One exception is an independently created game that has had almost 22,000 downloads so far.)

One can only assume that Microsoft is waiting on next month's CES—a consumer trade show—to discuss Windows Phone momentum, such as it is. But I think the slow boil in what should be Microsoft's most exciting new product line is emblematic of the calcification that has gripped this company in recent years in the face of sudden and awesome competition from companies like Apple and Google. Microsoft spent all of 2010, for example, promising that its partners would ship a slew of new Windows 7-based tablets. And they will ... in 2011, when Apple ships its second generation iPad and raises the bar yet again.

So maybe it will take a few years for Windows Phone to catch on. There are those who think that the window is closing on that, but I'm not so sure. I still believe in Windows Phone, and I believe that Microsoft is in it for the long haul. I just wish the company would show some signs of life. Silence in the face of bad news is not the right message to send to potential customers, whether they're consumers or business users—and this is not the time to let the Internet rumor hounds tell the story. The last time Microsoft tried this tactic was with Windows Vista. And we all know how that turned out.

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