Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Confluence of Microsoft - can they keep from killing innovation again?

Microsoft has made several moves lately to firm up their tenuous - or lack of - grip on mobile computing. Their strategy in the last couple of years has been fragmented; in fighting, non competitive products, cultural collisions and hugely missed opportunities.

A while back I offered the word "Zuned" to describe what outwardly looks like a good product, but when the details of how it works become clear - it is obvious that it is a crippled product not from a technological viewpoint - but from a software and philosophical view point. The Zune shipped with wifi well before Apple included it in their mobile products - but it was so completely crippled that it was not just disappointing - it had a implicitly damaged user experience which made it undesirable. Do you know anyone that has a Zune (particularly the brown one)?

The Hiptop was next - Microsoft bought them. When it came out - it was a slickly designed device that had some strong "Apple-like" aspects. The form factor was great. The business model was good - using a backend to massage web content so that it would work well in a low bandwidth environment. More importantly, it was a "hip blackberry" - strongly messaging centric - but cool in a way that Blackberry was not.

Wow - it is dead now. They still make them, but it is clear that Hiptop's day has come and gone. Microsoft bought the company - without a clear understanding of how it would fit into their overall mobile strategy. They bled intellectual capital - most of the programmers left.

The Kin/Mobile battle was next. The Kin so utterly, completely lost - and it should have. The UI was a mess. It was slow - an unforgivable sin. How could such a product slipped out - only to be killed shortly there after. It made Microsoft look bad.

Windows Mobile itself has a new version - and the world says "Who cares?". They missed their window of opportunity - I remember the iPhone coming out, and looking at a friend's Windows mobile device. My friend kept telling me how his phone had a lot more stuff (camera with video recording, gps and keyboard). But it was big and ugly. The keyboard started to fail after a year of hard use. Most Window Mobile devices looked like it - something only a geek would love.

So now they have bought Skype, and Nokia has announced a strategic partnership. I guess that Microsoft will end up buying Nokia's mobile division. Skype will be built into all the Microsoft products, notably their mobile offerings. Nokia still designs nice handsets - but they never moved quickly enough to address the iPhone. Wow - if they had adopted Android - it would have been huge. Android really needs good UI and form factor designers. The Droid is at kinda kool, but also a big pile of features and buttons with not enough cohesiveness. It has been a consistent problem with the Android mobile platform - which Google is now addressing - by tightening the reigns on UI programming standards. This has always been a strength of Apple - all the way back to the original Mac.

I remain skeptical - given Microsoft's track record - they have to stop playing "me too". It doesn't work. There is no Xbox phone - which is a big, glaring hole in my mind - their big hit product (even I own one, and it is great) - with great branding - but not in mobile space. It should have been out a year ago. Tapping into Xbox Marketplace would allowed them to tap into a downloadable App model like Apple, but the advantage is that they are doing this right now - it just has to be extended into mobile space. Now Apple is nailing down portable gaming space - which will bleed over into traditional game device space - if I was Sony and Nintendo - I would be concerned. That Microsoft didn't let the Xbox developers take a stab at a mobile phone - with Microsoft mobile underpinnings - it is just another milestone in Microsoft's move to 2nd tier status.