Editorial: Windows Phone is moving too slowly to compete

Why Microsoft should move to two major releases of Windows Phone per year.

So far it’s been a tough 2013 for Windows Phone fans who have seen Instagram running on another platform before Microsoft’s and a hint of a Notification Center that ultimately came up short. These disappointments have stirred up a flurry of questions in my head about Microsoft’s current strategy with Windows Phone 8, and there are about twelve serious issues I could write separate editorials about. I wouldn’t punish you (or my fingers) by writing hundreds of words about each, but the one that has been knocking around in my head hard enough to prompt this essay also has the most direct impact to Windows Phone’s crawling market share: timing.

In my opinion, there’s one very simple reason why Android has become the world’s most popular smartphone OS — a little economics phenomenon called market saturation, coupled with some good timing. Google rapidly incremented with Android, adding dozens of new features in two major software updates per year. Each new version of the software eventually led to new waves of devices being released a few months later with the latest and greatest update preloaded. With new hardware supporting new features, Android apps grew and added new capabilities. We can’t help but nod our heads in admiration towards Google, who created a release cycle that kept developers, manufacturers, and even competitors on their toes.

Microsoft’s biggest mistake with Windows Phone from 2010 until now has been its once-a-year release cycle.

With smartphone adoption in the United States nearing 50% of the population, the window for continued growth in the market is beginning to close. With two dominant operating systems accounting for more than 90% of smartphone purchases worldwide during the last holiday season, what are the odds of a small player being able to capture a bigger piece of the rapidly-disappearing pie? There is an answer: turn the odds in your favor.

In my opinion, Microsoft’s biggest mistake with Windows Phone from 2010 until now has been its once-a-year release cycle. Traditionally, the more significant software revisions for Windows Phone have launched alongside new hardware during Winter, while one incrementally important update is released to existing devices in the Spring. Yet with the exception of a peculiar 2011, new Windows Phone flagships are rarely ever released (or marketed) after the Christmas lights are taken down. In other words, it feels like Microsoft has been putting in about three months of real effort each year while manufacturers like Nokia pick up the slack.

To remedy the Spring lull and keep the influential tech world engaged, I believe that Microsoft needs to move to a biannual release schedule for Windows Phone updates. More importantly, they really need to make that Spring update count by rapidly adding support for new hardware specifications to compete with Android. We all know how quickly manufacturers can churn out Android flagships, and Microsoft needs to enable them to do something similar with Windows Phone.

It’s all about increasing the odds.

Like we said, it’s all about increasing the odds. A lot of casual smartphone users whom I know chose their device by walking into a carrier store, and checking out what devices were new. There are several more variables that could have gone into their purchase like that funny commercial they saw, or the good word of mouth from their friends.

Microsoft executed with those variables in mind last Fall, and as a result sold almost triple the number of Windows Phones compared to the previous year. But momentum in the mobile market is a pendulum that sways wildly every time something new and shiny is announced — Microsoft needs new products on store shelves before the potency of the marketing and the general ‘new’-ness wears off. What good is a multimillion dollar marketing campaign if no one cares in a few weeks?

What good is a multimillion dollar marketing campaign if no one cares in a few weeks?

Before you start preparing your own essays in rebuttal, I am fully aware of the obstacles Microsoft faces should they employ this faster release cycle, but it’s not unfeasible. The largest boulders to leap over are probably the fickle carriers of the United States, who may not even be interested in releasing new Windows Phone flagships every six months. Yet there’s a simple answer for that too: ignore America, release the new phones in other major markets, and build up demand so you have some positive data to point to when you renegotiate a few months later.

Another complaint that may crop up if Windows Phones are iterating every few months is buyer’s remorse. While we hope new software would be released to existing devices, the reality is uncertain and more importantly the new hardware could be what recent buyers really become jealous of. Take for example Nokia’s rumored EOS device; if it’s on sale three weeks from now with a 41-megapixel PureView sensor and quad-core processor, how would Nokia Lumia 920 owners feel? Would the increase in quality of hardware be significant enough for supporters to break out their pitchforks after buying a phone that’s just five months old? Maybe, and that’s something Microsoft and its partners would have to balance delicately in a faster release cycle.

There are more problems with the plan, like the financial status of HTC and Nokia whose resources are being spread thin, or the general disinterest from Samsung, who could thrive in this setup. But at this point I think any strategy is worth trying, because what Microsoft is doing now isn’t working well enough.

The tortoise won the race slow and steady, but it’s only because the hare screwed up. At this rate, Microsoft shouldn’t bank on catching one of their competitors asleep, inches away from the finish line.

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