Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Microsoft isn't too mobile

Has Microsoft actually shipped a mobile device in the last couple of years that is worth a damn?

Their strategy has been a mess. They at one point supported 5 different mobile platforms, with little overlap between them.

There was the Zune. There were the missteps; the brown Zune, the wifi that was inexplicably crippled on the device. The tragedy was compounded with the fact that it wasn't that bad a device. The menu system was actually nice.

There was Windows Mobile. It was the PDA/Phone thing. Geeks loved them. They were big, ugly and had lots of features. And they were saddled with an OS that had a poorly realized interface that was originally developed for their PDA's. I had a HP PDA, loved it's potential, but hated it's realization. Simple things like configuring wireless were almost purposely hard to do. It was almost like Microsoft didn't want you to use wireless networking.

There was that other Microsoft Smart Phone thing. It was a little nicer to use, but it was confusing as well. What is the difference? Sometimes I was confused about which was a Smart Phone and which was a Windows Mobile device.

There was the Sidekick. Microsoft bought a company that at one time had one of the most innovative phones on the market; a clever design that offered a great text messaging experience and lightweight web browsing through their back-end interface. It was killed not actively, but by neglect and lack of ability to incorporate it into their product line. It ran Java - does Microsoft write anything in Java?

The last casualty has been the Kin. It was a device that was supposed to be targeted at the "20 somethings" - you know - that "connected generation". I remember trying to figure out how to use one in a Verizon store while waiting for a friend. The user interface was a car wreck. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out how to use it to make a phone call. It went downhill from there.

Apple succeeded where Microsoft hasn't because it is small enough that it has by it's very nature been focused on using as much as it can from one device to another. Mac OS X and iOS4 share many of the same underpinnings. Expect to see features from the iPhone show up on Mac OS X - such as the re-write of Quicktime called Quicktime 10. Critics like to complain that the iPad is just a "big iPhone", but it's success is because Apple did incorporate all their research and fine-tuning in their new device.

Microsoft has been all over the place, like a kid with tons of toys but also a very bad case of ADD. It can't seem to be focused on how to make a good device. It can't even seem to get the basics right. If Android hasn't passed them, it will soon.

Microsoft can do this. The XBox 360 is a good game system despite a few annoyances. The menuing is good, you can even play back video in formats that their own desktop operating system doesn't support.

Perhaps it is time to go back and refocus. Killing off all these devices that don't fit into a cohesive strategy is a good start. The Kin tried to take some ideas from the Sidekick, but the reality is that the Sidekick's days have come and gone - the last thing that was compelling about it was the device design itself, and it has been copied and improved upon by others.

It may be that Microsoft has to look outside their own company for answers. The weight of the company, with all it's legacy, politics and culture, is preventing it from innovating. I am not an expert at this, but I can say it has been a very long time since I have seen a Microsoft anything that made me take a step back and be impressed. These latest occurances are just part of a bigger problem that is too sprawling to outline here. I am simply not knowledgeable enough to offer that kind of advice. All I can say is that when I held a Kin in my hand, it felt like a doomed product, and I am sure that I was not the first one to have this same feeling.