Sunday, June 08, 2008

Microsoft Should Trumpet, not Downplay, iPhone's Real Accomplishment (Hint: It's not about Sales Volume)

In this article, Philip Elmer-DeWitt deconstructs a Microsoft partner mass email to discuss how a heap of chest thumping is presumably hiding real insecurities about how the Windows Mobile ecosystem stacks up to that of the iPhone.

Coming before the new iPhone launch, I agree this is not a coincidence. And although I've penned defenses of Microsoft in this blog, this post isn't one them. Instead of chest thumping, Microsoft should be talking to its partners about what Apple has accomplished with the iPhone that Microsoft has not in the 6-odd years since the first Windows Mobile phone shipped... and how that accomplishment has created new opportunities and liberated new value for the entire wireless space including the WinMo world.

In a nutshell, one of the enduring problems with wireless is that no matter how good the phones got (first WAP, then Java apps -- with networking, then color and multimedia and .Net and push data and QWERTY keyboards etc.), U.S. customers just never seemed to get that this was a real computing device, that would powerfully complement their PC(s) and could be just as general in use.

No matter how much analysis showed that the phones people already had could save weeks out of their lives through increased convenience and productivity (with the right software), almost no one used productivity apps, or mobile websites, on their phone. Some conceptual chasm just stopped people in the U.S.

So Apple comes along with the iPhone. And feature-for-feature, the original iPhone OS (not the OSX core, but as it was exposed developers/users) couldn't hope to keep up with Windows Mobile 2003, let alone '07 (WinMo 6.0).

But Apple was hunting different game. By combining a beautiful interface, ridiculously fast processor (to the point that battery life suffered), and an all-in-one experience featuring massive "On Ramp" signage to apps and the web, Apple got people to understand the phone was a computer that normally, natively runs apps and accesses the network, something no one else had accomplished on a mass scale in America.

I've written before about stuff Apple does poorly. This iPhone-as-computer play isn't one of those things. It was a big gamble, but arguably Apple has pulled off another early-Macintosh-type accomplishment in terms of changing how the public understands what a device can/should do.

And, as with the Macintosh, there is no reason that this "enlightenment" should only put dollars on Apple's bottom line. It boosts Windows Mobile, Symbian, Blackberry, Palm ... by focusing free mindshare on the phone as computer.

Now the other players need to follow through. Microsoft and RIM have the lead in the U.S. -- the first thing they ought to do is stop everything and get a browser on their phones that doesn't totally stink (that's the sanitized version of how both those guys' browsers deal with the modern web).

I won't detail requirements; I think Safari on the iPhone is a clear enough target. And while the wide variety of OEM hardware that runs Windows Mobile won't all have the CPU muscle for a Safari, Microsoft should make a credible effort to replace notepad, er, I mean Pocket IE. Meanwhile, why not send out a partner mass email confessing that PIE alone is costing everyone in the WinMo value chain bigtime.

If I were Ballmer, I'd dig up half a dozen hackers from inside or outside who have worked on the Mozilla codebase. I'd get them porting whatever they could to WinMo, and I'd have an internal team building a new Pocket IE product as well. At the end of Q3 '08, whichever browser works better on the most Windows Mobile devices, becomes part of WinMo, the other guys get a mediocre line for their resume (unshipped product), a vacation, and a reassignment to the next Microsoft Bob.

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