Windows Phone 7 Series and Microsoft’s partner problem

I watched Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Joe Belfiore, and Andy Lees introduce Windows Phone 7 Series. It appears to be a complete departure from previous iterations of Windows Mobile, in fact borrowing more from Zune than it does from earlier Windows phones. At one point, Lees noted that it has a “new core OS” optimized in partnership with Qualcomm, though I would not rest too much speculation on that one phrase.

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Unfortunately, the piece that I am most interested in, which is the developer platform, was not much discussed. It is to be unveiled at Mix next month in Las Vegas. Ballmer did say:

We raised the platform on which people can build … a new foundation with a rich set of development tools, built in and complete service availability that software developers can assume as a foundation.

Make of that what you will. I’d be surprised though if Silverlight is not a big part of the development story, along with revamped Windows Live services. I guess I’m expecting Microsoft to deliver with Silverlight something similar to what Adobe is doing with Flash and AIR – AIR for mobile devices has just been announced – but without the breadth of support across devices that Adobe has achieved.

We have been told that Flash will not be part of Windows Phone 7 in its first version, so it looks like it may live in its own development world to some extent.

The demo at the press launch has been well received, and it looks likely that Microsoft is creating a more usable phone than earlier generations. That’s good, though it is telling that it took Apple with iPhone and perhaps Google with Android to convince Microsoft that maybe the Start menu and a cut down Windows API wasn’t the best way to do a phone.

In the absence of technical details, what interested me most were the comments about how Microsoft relates to its partners. It is a hot topic for me. I am taking heat for talking about a poor experience on WIndows 7 that is really the fault of 3rd parties. The problem is that the partner system which worked so well for Microsoft in the early days of the PC is now working against it, and an unpleasant experience of a Windows 7 netbook is a symptom of that.

Clearly Microsoft also understands this. Ballmer noted that

We want to lead and take complete accountability for the end user experience … have more consistency in the hardware platform, more consistency in the user experience, but still enable [partner] innovation

Translation: we are being hammered by OEMs who wreck our product with poor quality hardware and add-on software.

But how will Microsoft change this aspect of Windows, whether on the desktop or a device? “There’s a bit of a conundrum here,” said Ballmer, and he is right. If Microsoft tries Apple-style lockdown, it may run into anti-trust trouble and/or drive OEMs to Linux. If Microsoft does no more than talk the talk, then the problem remains.

It is true that Microsoft is strictly specifying minimum hardware. That’s nothing new; it has done this since the earliest days of Pocket PC.

I’m inclined to think it is just talking the talk and that nothing will change. Still, here’s Lees on the same subject. He begins by restating Microsoft’s belief in the partner model:

One of the things we’ve kept constant is our belief in the partner model. There are three reasons why partners are fundamental to our business. Firstly, they add rich experience and expertise across a broad spectrum of areas, hardware, software and services. Second, is … scale. We need partners to develop, market and support Windows phones at this scale. Third, partners meet diverse needs by providing customers with choice. One size does not fit all. People want different kinds of phones.

It’s odd how Apple thrives without all that “rich experience and expertise.” But never mind. Lees adds:

We have changed how we work with them. The goal is to improve the quality and consistency.

So Microsoft says with one breath how it just loves the partner model, and with the next that it is changing it. We all know why it wants to change it. It is because it is broken, though Microsoft cannot bring itself to admit it out loud.

The question: which of these near-contradictory statements do you believe? That it is sticking with the failing partner model, or that it is changing it? My guess is the former, because I am not sure that Microsoft really has the will or even the ability to change, but I would like to be proved wrong.

Oh, and Lees says that the mobile operators:

… have tremendous value to add. They are not just dumb pipes. Our model is about enabling those innovations so that they can add software and services and benefit from our … platform.

I understand why Lees said this; but I find it hard to think of tremendous added value from the operators. Apple’s iPhone success is partly thanks to its skill in working round them.

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4 comments to Windows Phone 7 Series and Microsoft’s partner problem

  • Max Kosenko

    I believe the core thing here is that Microsoft introduces OS extensibility instead of lock down or freeform application development. Something with Silverlight MEF inside. And extensibility in controlled fashion with good tools can really change things a lot.

  • With the iPhone, there’s two groups: Apple and the carriers. With a Windows phone (or a PC, for that matter), there’s three: Microsoft, the hardware manufacturers like Samsung, and the carriers like Verizon (or the distributors like Dell, if we’re talking PCs). Apple can look at a carrier in the eye and say “here’s the phone, it is what it is”–that is, “we made the phone, you’re dealing with us.” Microsoft can’t do that. Aside from distributing an OS that is particularly inflexible, I don’t see what Microsoft can do to control the extra relationship (between the hardware manufacturer and the carrier) that it has in its model, short of paying them a kickback (something like a “user experience preservation rewards agreement”) to not be tempted to make the kinds of crapware deals or Verizon-style ding-you-to-death-with-add-ons stratification (e.g., “the OS comes with Facebook integration but it’ll be $2.99/mo for Verizon to turn it on which also requires a $4.99/mo Social Data Plan”-type of thing) that we often see in the PC market since the hardware has been so commoditized and profit margins are razor thin.

  • John Galt

    WM was the bastard child of MS, never got the proper brainpower to get it un-buggy, it died. Sucks.

  • John Galt

    Really tired of hearing about “user experience”, just another way of saying fluff and eye candy for the short-attention-span crowd.

    People want something that gets the job done (like my customers). User “experience” was not on the list.