Microsoft Plays The Long Game With WinPho 7

Windows Phone 7 has experienced some growing pains, but Microsoft continues pushing the platform as a viable one, says Nicholas Kolakowski

Windows Phone 7 represents Microsoft’s next best hope for carving some smartphone market share away from the likes of not only Google Android and the Apple iPhone, but also Research In Motion’s BlackBerry franchise and the Palm devices resurrected under the Hewlett-Packard brand.

By some analyst estimates, Microsoft has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its Windows Phone 7 development and marketing efforts. It recently signed a deal with Nokia that will see the software ported onto the latter’s smartphones, an agreement both companies hope will boost their respective market shares in the long battle against their mutual rivals. Microsoft made sure to sign a number of carriers and manufacturing partners onto its initial smartphone rollout, and it imposed strict hardware requirements for the devices themselves, to ensure a consistent user experience.

And yet Windows Phone 7 is still experiencing some growing pains.

Teething problems

It started when a February software update, designed to help with future updates, stalled a small number of users’ smartphones and sparked two days’ worth of drama on Microsoft’s online help forums. In the wake of that mini-incident, Microsoft seemed to take a more cautious note with “NoDo,” its March update.

“After careful consultation with the team and our many partners, we’ve decided to briefly hold the March update in order to ensure the update process meets our standards and that of our customers,” a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in a March 10 email to eWEEK. “As a result, we will plan to begin delivering the update in the latter half of March.”

The “NoDo” update brings a number of things to the proverbial table, including faster app loading and the addition of a cut-and-paste feature. However, for many users, the last week of March ticked by without an update — sparking another round of online protests. Microsoft responded with a pair of charts detailing the update status for devices in both the United States and around the world. The chart broke the update path into three categories:

  • Testing, i.e., the update is undergoing network and quality tests.
  • Scheduling, i.e., Microsoft is scheduling the update for delivery—a process the charts suggest will take “10 days or less.”
  • Delivering, i.e., the smartphone could receive the update within the next “several weeks.”

Although the substantial majority of Windows Phone 7 devices had reached the “delivering” stage by early April, some initial slowness for users in the United States — by 27 March, no device had reached the “delivering” stage for either the March or February update — led to another micro-burst of public frustration, this time in the comments section of the Microsoft-owned Channel 9 website.

Surrendering control

“We know the table would benefit greatly from more detail, and we are hoping to add more to it by working with the operators who own the ‘testing’ phase to get more clarity,” Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s corporate vice president and director of Windows Phone programme management, wrote 26 March in direct response to those comments. “If your phone is shown in ‘scheduling,’ it’ll be worth checking the table next week.”

And therein lies a potential rub: By ceding the “testing” phase of the update process to the “operators” — Microsoft’s carrier partners — the company surrenders control over the upgrade timetable to outside entities whose strategic alliances and concerns may not wholly align with those of Redmond. Those entanglements aside, the minor speed bumps with the first two updates will likely pressure Microsoft to ensure that the software tweaks scheduled for the next few months, including multitasking and a Twitter feature, proceed on schedule.

In the meantime, Microsoft seems intent on plowing through the early and more awkward stages of Windows Phone 7’s lifestyle. Microsoft’s MIX11 conference, due to kick off April 12 in Las Vegas, will assemble a broad range of developers and designers to discuss, among other topics, the future of Windows Phone as a viable platform for apps and services.

Windows Phone viability

A 30 March posting on The Windows Phone Developer Blog offers numbers that Microsoft executives will likely use onstage to illustrate that viability: Windows Phone Developer Tools being downloaded some 1.5 million times, the Windows Phone developer community boasting 36,000 members and the Windows Phone 7 ecosystem containing around 11,500 apps.

“We recognise the importance of getting great apps on our platform and not artificially inflating the number of actual apps available to [customers] by listing ‘wallpapers’ as a category, or perhaps allowing competitors’ apps to run on the platform to increase tonnage,” Brandon Watson, Microsoft’s director of developer experience for Windows Phone 7, wrote in the posting. “We also don’t believe in the practice of counting ‘lite’ apps as unique quality content. In reality they only exist because developers can’t have a Trial API and must therefore do extra work.”

Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether consumers are gravitating toward the Windows Phone 7 platform. New numbers from analytics firm comScore suggest that Microsoft’s share of the smartphone market dipped to 7.7 percent for the three months ending in February, down from 9 percent in November 2010, when the first Windows Phone 7 devices hit store shelves. To be fair, comScore’s gross number also incorporates devices in Microsoft’s antiquated Windows Mobile line, which are presumably experiencing a degree of natural bleed-off in favour of Windows Phone 7 and other platforms; nonetheless, Microsoft’s smartphone efforts continue to lag those of Google Android, Apple’s iOS and RIM’s BlackBerry.

In order to change that picture, Microsoft is betting on partnerships with companies like Nokia, a broad array of devices on multiple carriers, and quality apps from third-party developers. As emphasised repeatedly by both Microsoft executives and outside analysts, there is a very long game ahead.