Credits: paulo muñóz (@el_gr)

Microsoft Needs To Get Coherent for Windows Phone To Survive

How a great product is being held back by its company culture

Since 2011, Microsoft has been taking steps to reinvigorate itself. And perharps the most important of them all, was the company-wide introduction of its Metro UI. From the ashes of Zune, a defining design language was born for all software and hardware created at Redmond.

It was revolutionary. Not so much from a consumer perspective, but for the culture of a company that is famous for having divisions isolated enough for employees not even knowing what is behind entire buldings, it is a huge change.

So, as soon as the moment came for a phone upgrade, I thought it was a safe bet to get a Windows Phone, an OS I was very intrigued with. And here I am, with a beautiful Nokia Lumia 800. Knowing how key it is to have a relevant presence in the mobile market, Microsoft would fight with all its might to push forward the platform, right? Maybe… but something is wrong.

Killer apps need to be exclusive

A few days ago, the company reluctantly admited that it is currently working on a new Age of Empires headed for iOS and Android first, only to appear on Windows Phone “on a later date.” Even more, the game will come with full support of Xbox Live, a feature once exclusive to Windows.

I would like for it to be the first time, but Wordament, previously a Windows-exclusive, is available for iOS since past December. Now, do not get me wrong. I like for developers to make its services as universal as possible, and a words game is hardly a killer app (Age of Empires being another matter). But also, I know how important signals are, and Microsoft is not communicating the right ones.

Microsoft is first and foremost, a software company. And everyone in the technology business know that the real sales driver of hardware is software. The Xbox 360 sells well because of the system internals, but primarly thanks to its games. Some people only buy them to play Gears of Wars and Halo.

The very reason for Windows to be the most popular OS in the market is not the PCs it powers, or even the OS itself. It is because there is more key software running on Windows than on Mac. But what these two have in common is that there is a threshold of minimum support from third parties for them to be profitable, and that same principle applies on mobile.

Last year, one of the biggest bullet points in the Windows Phone’s marketing strategy, was the mobile exclusivity of true Office. But last week, Redmond launched the entire suite for iPhone, even when Apple explicitly refused making an iTunes for Windows 8. Ouch.

Integration is king

When Nokia and Microsoft announced their partnership, both Stephen Elop and Steve Ballmer stressed on the importance of “creating an ecosystem”, integrating apps, OS and other devices around people’s lives.

Steve Ballmer (CEO, Microsoft) and Stephen Elop (CEO, Nokia). Credits:

Microsoft is comprised of multiple departments housed in separate buildings or floors, each one responsible for its own products or services within the company’s business. These teams have little incentive to cooperate with each other when they are not forced to do so by senior management. Integration means a lot more than some kind of preference into pushing its own platforms because a company-wide memo said so.

It means that when as a company you develop different devices or services, you design them to work togheter as better as possible. Is something that Apple mastered a long time ago. If you have a Mac, and you connect an iPhone it just works, no question asked. If you happen to connect your Lumia into the Xbox 360 USB ports, it does not work, not even for charging, even though you can use a Zune — and even an iPhone for that matter — to manage multimedia content and play games such as Lips with custom music.

For the sake of comparison, Facebook has a policy of open offices, with people on the C-level working alongside junior programmers and even marketing. The teams are shuffled every few weeks and are created around their expertise. That allows them to constantly create new products, but more importantly, to improve at a rapid pace over its own base.

In Valve, entire videogames are developed under one simple rule: if it draws interest of fellow employees, it gets done. That is how some of their most important titles have born. There are no fixed teams, because they are formed around ideas. And having teams working for products they care, gives everyone respect of each other’s work.

Microsoft is in serious need for its people to know how important it is to lead the pace with Windows Phone, creating great content and also giving people reasons to choose it over iOS or Android, by respecting its own products. Looks are great, but not nearly enough.

The PR issue

Nearly all the efforts to market Windows Phone come from Nokia. And while it is true that the Finnish pride has a lot more to lose, they in fact pay to Microsoft for the licence of their mobile OS more than what Microsoft pays them as part of their partnership.

Yesterday, the company started its annual developers conference //build/ introducing Windows 8.1, the new Bing platform and even new footage of a game coming to Xbox One, Xbox 360 and Windows 8. But the only thing they did for Windows Phone, was showing the already launched Nokia Lumia 925, that itself is just a refresh of the year-old 920.

It is a problem probably exacerbated by the fact that I am based in Chile, a far away country in Latin America, but what I see is a company failing to provide announcements or teasers for updates on the system, with users simply not knowing when they come, while at the same time they operate in the completly opposite way with other products. Just compare their E3 conference versus the launch of Windows Phone 8 to understand the difference between efforts.

Even Windows 8.1 is being pushed as aggressive as Xbox, with a preview open for download and extensive hands-on time with the media the days before its public reveal.

The worst offense

As said before, I have a Nokia Lumia 800. A device I bought after reviewing it for a magazine. And then, some four months later, Microsoft admits their devices would not be compatible with Windows Phone 8.

Is it my geographic disadvantage again? Just until you realize that Nokia was pushing the Lumia 900 as their flagship just weeks ago in the US. That changes everything. Not only early adopters become second-class citizens of the OS, but the trust on future releases gets damaged. For example, the new Lumia 925 is being launched mid-cycle, just like the 900 the year before. What if the next update needs quad-core processors and the flagship is left out again? While from a technical standpoint is not likely, the end user does not have the obligation to know that.

Nokia Lumia 925. Credits: Nokia

So, why did I buy a Windows Phone at all?

The thing is, after all these problems, Windows Phone is still an excelent platform, with the best out-of-the-box experience, deep social network integration, great cloud services, a functional and attractive UI, a new Halo coming and support from arguably the best mobile hardware manufacturer in the world. Moreover, I hope Steve Ballmer can change the company culture for the better, and it is rumored that steps towards that goal are being taken, but it is still at a slow pace, and competition is already racing at full-speed.