Windows Phone..where are we today

Mobility is always one of the topics I like to write most about as I find the world fascinating. From the carrier networks and billing systems down to the actual consumer devices. I was at Microsoft in Bldg 117, home of Microsoft Mobility, when the first Windows Phone was released. I had every Windows Phone OS from v1.0 on up to 6.5. I won’t go through the whole history, but needless to say, things started to fall apart for the Microsoft Phone business after the release of the Apple iPhone.  With the latest release of Windows Phone, code-named Mango and the flowering relationship with Nokia, Microsoft at long last seems in a position to compete with Apple and Google.  However so far Windows Phone, despite every positive reviews seems to be at a cross roads.

Recently former Microsoft Windows Phone GM, Charles Kindel on his blog wrote about his thoughts as to why, despite in his view, WP7 is a superior product, sales were so lack luster.  Though I don’t agree with all his points some are very valid.  He highlights four areas of the mobile eco system. They are as follows:

  1. Carriers
  2. Device Manufacturers
  3. OS Providers
  4. Users
  5. Developer **

As noted in his blog he intentionally left the developer community off the list, but I shall add it back in.  So there you have it 5.

Carriers are kind of the Mitt Romney of tech, he wants to be popular to the conservative base of voters but he is not.  The carriers want to be like Silicon Valley, but they are not.  Telco execs are closer to Depends than Huggies.  Silicon Valley kids are definitely in the Huggie category.  Carriers at the end of the day own the last mile to the customer.  Any service for mobile devices will run through them.  They get us all connected.  It’s exciting stuff.  That being said no one gets excited by their carrier.  High School kids do not say they are cool now that they have Verizon Wireless.  Kids are excited by the device and  the functionality it provides them.  Voice and data plans are a necessary evil.  The only talking points are quality of service and the cost of the service.  But make no mistake these old boys wield a lot of power and would like nothing better than to be recognized as “cool” for it.  If you want your device sold you have to play with them…unless you are Apple which managed to dictate their own terms.  This leads us to the next category.

Device Manufacturers do some of the really cool stuff that make the handsets we buy..well cool.  But how do carriers select which handset they will place in their storefronts and promote?  Well we have two different approaches.  One is very monolithic and takes control away from the carriers.  That of course would be Apple.  Apple s the only device manufacturer that I can think of that was able to dictate how their phone would be sold , which at first was sold exclusively through AT&T.  Steve Jobs knew he had broken new ground when Apple created the iPhone.  It was a leap-frog step in mobile phones.  He knew it and he negotiated it.  AT&T sold voice and data plans for the iPhone, but Apple got the rest, including the App Store.  All AT&T could hope for was that the iPhone would drive more subscribers to their network.  It did.   a lot of new subscribers.  On the flip side is Google and what they have done with Android.  Buy a mobile OS, leverage open source and let device manufacturers create.  It was a good plan that gave some leading handset manufacturers cool software so that they could compete and sell against the iPhone.  Quickly HTC went from being a dominant Windows Phone shop to a dominant Android shop.  Other handset manufactures fell quickly into line such as Samsung and Motorola.  Device manufactures had the flexibility to innovate and not have to adhere to a rigid set of software design practices.  Charles Kindel highlighted this in his blog and I am in strong agreement with him on this.  Microsoft has not done this and it has caused friction with device manufacturers. The carriers liked this model as it was less friction between the carriers and device manufactures.  It gave carriers more variety to sell and also more inexpensive devices. Cost was an area where Google could innovate and compete with Apple.

For the providers of OS’s there are primarily three: Apple, Google and Microsoft.  Apple is a walled garden or prison cell, which ever analogy you prefer. Google is on the flip side as it pursued more the open source model and courted developers heavily to their Android platform. I flatter Microsoft by putting them here as they are around 2% in terms of market share, but they have over $30 billion in cash so I guess I should.  Operating systems, whether they are on a tablet, laptop, phone  or other don’t matter as much as the makers would like to think.  But they do enable our experiences so to minimize them would also be wrong.  Really Apple is a soup to nuts shop so they own hardware and software design,  Google and Microsoft differ in approach and cost.  Google has a better developer model and doe snot cost.  Microsoft is less open and does charge for the OS to hand set manufacturers.  In my view these two things will slow down their progress in the market place and to get to a substantial market share is going to be a hard journey.

Users in the end decide where they want to invest their money.  Sp much of what they invest is not necessarily for cool features and cutting edge technology.  It is for how the product makes them feel.  Don’t get me wrong all the technical stuff is very important in making the end product successful, but at the end of the day users want to feel good.   Apple has been far and away the best at this.  Android is good, but it is a cheap alternative to Apple.    Though Charles Kindel claims the Windows Phone is the best bar none, it is hard to substantiate when it’s hard to find anyone (as of yet) who owns one.  My view is tainted toward the positive as I live in Seattle so I have plenty of Microsoft employees happy to show me all the cool features.  Note to Microsoft employees here.  Stop showing features and hand the phone to whomever you are talking to, so they can “experience” the phone.  Feature demo’s are for geeks.

Finally we come to developers.  The are the Windows Phone is weakest in.  Remember Steve Ballmer saying, “Developers, Developers, Developers” .  Apparently he forgot.  Recently Apple hit 500,000 applications, Google has a few hundred thousand.  Microsoft announced they hit 50,000..  Apple amazed me as they used Object C as the development language for the  iOS.  I sold C compilers in the early nineties.  It seemed dead.  However after the release of the iPhone it went from dead to one of the top ten programming languages.  Developers g where the money is.  The development language they use is secondary.  Google use of open source made sense, since the open source community is a whole lot of developers at heart.  It’s a large community so leverage their brain power.  Which brings us back to the Microsoft developer.  Who is Microsoft asking to write Windows Phone apps?  Simple the large and robust Microsoft developer community and yet they are still not even visible in the rear view mirror of Apple and Google.  Why?  For starters mobile apps are simple and cheap.  It is based on a high volume lower margin principle.  Plus a lot of Microsoft developers are not targeting consumer apps.  One of two things has to happen.  Either Microsoft has to create enough consumer demand for Windows Phone to bring developers over to Microsoft or they need to attract non-Microsoft developers to the Microsoft brand.  Not easy but it has to be done.

In the long run I expect that Microsoft will pour enough money into Windows Phone to drive some success, but how much and what is deemed a success is to be determined.  I think short-term it makes more sense for Microsoft to go after Google and Android as Apple has extremely high consumer satisfaction.  A recent study cited 85% of Apple iPhone users would buy Apple again.  Android is ow cost but it is also in danger of fragmenting as the OS layer as more handset manufactures modify the OS , thus creating apps that are compatible on some devices but not all.  This needs to happen fast as Android sales are sky rocketing.  Microsoft and Nokia will have a successful launch and Windows Phone will increase in market share (how much?!?), but the next big question will be can it create and sustain momentum?  Though Charles Kindel claims the Windows Phone is the best mobile phone on the planet, that does not translate into success.  Technology is littered with products that were deemed the best and yet failed to catch on.  It is early for Windows Phone 7 and Microsoft is way late to the game.  Their key partner, Nokia, is making a last stand with the Microsoft mobile platform.  In the mean time Apple and Google have not slowed down.  It seems impossible to overcome.  But what does Microsoft have to lose except for ….the future.

Good Night and Good Luck.

Hans Henrik Hoffmann –  January 9, 2012

The App Store Craze

I was at a family event and all my nieces had a iTouch. I had never played withe the iPhone or iTouch at this point so when handed one I gave it a drive. First I ran some YouTube videos. A soccer clip of at the time Manchester United player Christiano Ronaldo. Connected to the house wi-fi it performed really well, which was an eye opener compared to previous experiences on my Windows Mobile phones, which frankly you just did not try. then with the wave of my fingers I cruised around the iTouch software. Soon I landed on what I viewed as a boring feature “The App store”, then with a simple touch if my finger a new world was opened up.  At first I could not believe how fast I was moved from one screen to the next and then all the options available to me, either for free or for purchase.  The categories available, the large number of apps available was all very impressive and very different from my previous experiences with mobile applications.

Prior to the app store developing apps for mobile devices was painful and not very profitable.  The first problem was which mobile phone did you write to?  Symbian, RIM, Microsoft, etc..Then their was the carrier issue as each carrier wanted to own the ecosystem.  I had to choose between Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint was a real pain in the ass.  Not to mention that by the time you broke it all down there was not much of a market to go after.  Then ever if you did write the app the user experience of finding the app and loading it was long and painful.  Lastly the applications you downloaded were not very good or enjoyable, largely because there were not that many available.  It led to one conclusion writing, selling and running mobile applications was for the world of mobile geeks, other than that don’t bother.  Apple solved all three problems by owning the ecosystems, providing lots of applications and making it easy for everyone to get access, find and download what they wanted to.

Now it seems everyone is playing catch up with Apple – Apple has over 500,000 applications, Google has 200,000 – 300,000 and beyond that not a whole lot of applications or excitement for the other players in the space;  Microsoft, RIM, Nokia etc..Microsoft is already discussing Windows 8 and including an app store for the OS.  One  question is how many successful markets will there be?  It’s apparent for the foreseeable future there will be two but a third?  I will be interested to see what a Windows 8 store means.  We are talking about the desktop after all and will it mimic the Android or iPhone app store with a bunch of free and low-priced apps?  This would mark a paradigm shift for the desktop as traditionally you bought apps that costs into the hundreds of dollars.    What will the Windows 8 tablet look like and will it be successful?  Another burning question are Windows developers like their counterparts in the Apple and Google world. interested in low-priced slash high volume sales?  The one thing I think Windows 8 does have riding for it, is it can be different, since it’s legacy is the desktop.  For RIM it’s harder as they are targeting just a mobile platform and thus cannot differentiate.  For RIM the future I believe is only a painful one.  Then there is Nokia.  I have yet to see or hear what their plans are – will they just consume off of the Windows 8 app store, thus ceding the whole app store revenue stream to Microsoft? It seems there can be only one here.  But that it the downside of Nokia letting Microsoft be their primary partner for the mobile OS will deprive Nokia ownership of the ecosystem.  Nokia can claim what it wants but its survival is dependent on Microsoft’s ability to deliver in spades.  More so from a sales and marketing front than a technology front.

Is there another paradigm to be explored?  Something around the corner we have not seen yet?  Without question there is, but I think sometimes we think it is something not invented yet, when many times it is something from the past yet re-hashed and improved.  The mobility phenomena will continue to evolve. We are always connected but the experience will continue ti improve as 4G technology becomes more prevalent.  Before you know it we will be up to 5G and 6G (if it is still called that).  The traditional software pricing structure of 90% margins is being torn down and that will continue as new indirect revenue models take its place.  It is just beginning in the area of mobility.  Soon you will hear of huge revenues from mobile advertising used to subsidize software development.  Ray Ozzie at Microsoft discussed this in his first memo at Microsoft.   For some it is just hard to take the plunge.

The App Store craze is here for now and how long it will be is hard to say, but how we acquire our digital delights will move away from packaged software, similar to how we download music today or stream movies.  The winners will be those who committed and as we see in Apple’s earnings calls probably has already been determined.  The key to success will be creating an experience that us simple and useful.  There still is opportunity in the areas of the cloud, in particular in small and midsize business and the enterprise.  There are companies making their imprints, such as Salesforce.Com, Amazon and Rackspace, but the game is still wide open.  It’s interesting to note in the last decade how the cutting edge of technology has moved from the ivory towers to the hands of our teenage kids and the impact it’s had on traditional tech powers.  The days of home desktop productivity software at $500 are over as the app store has created a mass market shift in how we consume our software and how we expect it perform.  There are those who can choose to take the plunge into the deep or perish in the tidal waves that follow.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann August 23, 2011

Is Apple a threat?

As I a watch with a great amount of envy the success Apple is enjoying its always fun to hear the critics. It is always the same story about too much control, no flexibility, a single entity dictating everything, in short it’s about power. A glaring human weakness that these days is finding more comfort in big corporations rather than big governments. In the industry of technology it seems to take on a heightened significance.  After all technology is about defining the future based on what does not exist today.  Much like the classic tales by Jules Verne and H.G. Wellls, we peer into that future with a bit of foreboding and cynicism as it charts un-tread waters that threaten the soul of humanity.  Apple is enjoying a run of success that seems to be defining our future interaction with technology. It seems natural that those old fears would surface.  It seems the human soul is always threatened.

To retread some of history, before we move forward, this sence of doom is not new.  In the old days some 40-50 years ago the technology threat was IBM.  There was a time where IBM spoke and the whole industry just followed in their coattails. It led to many concerns and protests within the industry.  However the rest of the industry had a friend, I simply call the Department of Justice (DOJ).  While they spent many hours in court a new revolution took hold called the Personal Computer (PC).  In a twist of fate IBM would give the rights to the software operating system to a small company called Microsoft.  Before long Microsoft had 90% market share and the industry began to cry of too much power, a single company dictating to the masses, but once again the industry had a friend to turn to, the Department of Justice.  While millions of dollars were being tied up in court the industry did an interesting thing…it changed.  New things like ad driven revenues via search were created and the term mobility took a twist to mean more than just a mobile phone providing voice services.  Before we knew it Apple had returned from the dead and new names like Google, Facebook and Twitter, to name but a few were now the face of the technology industry.

Why do we fear control by a single company – that ability to define what the industry will do and when they do it?  In some instances it is misplaced.  A large part of the fear is not created by the market but by the industry insiders competing against the perceived leader.  There are a couple of areas to consider, one is the developer and two is the competitive landscape

Developer, rightly or wrongly, are the gods of the computing world. for ultimately they bring our imagination to life. There always seems to be this mood against locking developers into a single “stack” platform, what god would be locked into anything? .  Having spent a fair amount of time with developers, they go where the business is plentiful.  Code is code, whether the developer is using Visual Basic or C the difference is not great enough that the VB developer cannot learn C or Java.   The fact that Apple has an army of developers using Object C, which is rather ancient is a testament to Apple’s ability to generate end-user excitement, which then brings an army of developers to their camp.  SO the fact that they are writing in a language that is over 30 years old is not a relevant point.  They are chasing the money, which always seems to be a relevant point.

The competition certainly fears control as it minimizes them.  No one is talking Windows Smartphone, because at least for now there is no business.  Even when Microsoft or HP (remember they bought Palm) talks about a developer platform it is treated rather silently in the press.  When Apple talks it’s like EF Hutton (older folks remember those commercials).  The room goes quite and everyone listens.  Does Apple control the press to?  I am sure to some it may seem like it, but the press is smart and goes where the news is best.  In short they don’t.  It does leave the competition in a quandary.  Do they try to forge their own path, very hard to change perceptions.  Do they play along with the devil?  It could be profitable, but the flip side is it could be suicide.  The biggest fear I would assume is just the fear of being shut out of a very lucrative market.

Could Apple gain a position where they dictate to everyone what their technology experience will be?  Could they be in a position to tell partners and competitors who gets to play in their pen?  Perhaps as it’s an age-old fear.  I am sure some felt that way about the American big three automakers at some point in time – they controlled manufacturing, distribution etc..but does anyone feel that way now?  I am not a free market purist, but the market is efficient.  As long as Apple does not get to arrogant they could influence the market to think the way they would like them to.  I would say so far they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.  Apple’s iTunes represent sa good example of Apple and the market holding the record labels in check.  The record labels would love to dictate to Apple the  terms of music pricing, but due to the popularity of the iPod they are more or less to listen and adhere to Apple’s pricing guideline.  The music labels make money (I have been told by one of the music labels they get $.20 of the $.99).  The labels would probably like to own the whole channel, but it gets way beyond their core expertise.

At times technology companies get to seem so powerful that they could control their destinies by sheer will power, but at the end of the day it’s people who choose where they want to spend their dollars.  If the fruit looks rotten we don’t want to eat it.  The consumer ultimately decides if a company like Apple is providing an experience they want to buy and participate in.  It’s also a very American condition to build up the big guy and then tear him down when we feel their ego and success has become too big for their own good.  Why do we all hate the Yankee’s and Red Sox? At the end of the day I don;t think Apple is a threat to the industry or society, but just in case we should keep our eyes and ears open, because if we don’t , well maybe then they will.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann August 10, 2011

Skype…it’s a verb

It was in the local paper today, Microsoft is buying a verb. It’s hard for me to comment here as I will be the first to say grammar was never my grade school strength. It was that stretch during the school day where I resigned myself to be bored. But thanks to Google it is now a core part of every major tech companies strategy. We must have a strategy that adds to the English language. Screw our partners the only partnership that matters is a partnership with Webster’s.  It’s the largest deal in Microsoft history so I am forced to address my youthful loathing and attempt to confront my greatest weakness.

The acquisition by Microsoft of Skype was largely driven by consumer behavior and the desire (in my opinion) to have a likable consumer face.  It is also great technology that has matured and been around for a long time (by tech standards). There are a lot of people and companies who actively use Skype for voice over IP communications.  It is one of those technologies if we are not using it today we can safely say we will be using it in the not so distant future.  If it can be done digitally, it will.  It is also popular with over 145 million subscribers, in particular in Europe where traditional lanline phone services are very expensive.  Beyond a large user base it seems a purchase with color or as it is called at Microsoft, life beyond beige.

A successful acquisition for Microsoft at this stage of the game is important.  Otherwise it will just prove the skeptics correct.  Many Wall Street analysts are saying it’s a bolt on solution, the real value in Skype is past its due date and why did Microsoft not buy this 10 years ago when it was just bursting onto the scene (and was much cheaper…eBay paid $2.7 billion while Microsoft paid $8.5 billion).  The last point I cannot fault.  Had they done this ten years ago it would have displayed a vision for the future.  By doing now they are just validating the future.

Still I believe there is tremendous upside should my former employer to do this right.  With Skype comes a lot of phone numbers and seamless integration into XBOX or the enterprise would be huge.  Also the upcoming Nokia Phones with Windows Phone 7  (or later) could provide a nice marketing opportunity to drive interest in the Microsoft Mobile platform.  Though XBOX has live chat today and video camera’s this could expand the base.  A question here is how many of Skyp’s 145 million users are gamers?  Based on that question this seems for XBOX more a technology play, I do not see this about driving XBOX adoption.  But with XBOX becoming more of a home media center integrating cool voice/video capabilities has its merits.

What could derail this?  Politics. Brain drain.  The first is internal to Microsoft but could affect the latter.  With Skype comes a lot of talent, now granted the good new here is it’s not all about the talent (which was major reason to buy Yahoo! for $35 billion, good thing that did not pan out).  Still retaining the key engineers who built up Skype and are loyal to Skype cannot be underestimated.  For too long now Microsoft has been losing the true creators of technology at Microsoft.  The people who built a business and wore Microsoft on their sleeve.  Once it’s handed off to those with no history it is just a business and the passion that built the breakthroughs is gone.  One thing about the tech sector, you had better have passion for what you are doing, otherwise save us all time and go home.

The biggest challenge will be integration, which over the last 10-15 years has been an Achilles heal for Microsoft. Starting with WebTV, through Navision and Great Plains to Danger,  aQuantive, all seemed like great acquisitions at the time they have just had trouble finding a home (ok I will come clean…I never got the Danger purchase).  With Skype the two likely places for the technology to land will be in the Microsoft enterprise solution, Office Communicator and it will make its way into XBOX.    I will add both products and technologies I really like.  The challenge could be more organizationally as they operate under two entirely different divisions at Microsoft.  Microsoft has long had the idea of integrated innovation and I do mean idea.  Sharing technology across organizations at Microsoft has proved far more challenging than the dreamy memo’s from Bill Gates originally suggested.  Internally Skype may have to be split up across groups.   The last point is interesting in that in the announcement a new business division was being created at Microsoft specifically for Skype.  But as has been pointed out the technology Skype brings is being eyed by multiple other groups at Microsoft.  I can only guess this was a part of the deal to help ease transition.  The tech industry is not a patient industry.

Buying a verb is an odd strategy, though as stated it has its technical merits.  But of late Microsoft seems to be doing odd things.  The partnership with Nokia to standardize on Windows Phone 7, getting RIM to use Bing as the default search engine for their mobile devices, and now buying Skype. I get the sense reading the blogs and talking with old colleagues, is people are frustrated with deals being done out of desperation and not a clear vision of the future.   The future used to be a divine right, now it seems a distant star.  Also so many of the things Skype is bringing our already being dome within various Microsoft products – why not invest a few billion in a significant marketing campaign?  It seems like  it would save some money and as a shareholder I may get angry about all this, but for now I am just going to try to identify the verb in this sentence…for free.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann May 12, 2011

Where is the Microsoft Tablet?

It has been nearly 2 years since the release of the iPad and during that time we have seen a titanic shift in technology and the market’s expectation of what technology can provide.  It seem every week companies are coming out with a new iPad application.  If you watch local news or national programs they all seem to have a iPad application. The good news for the market is it is not just the Apple iPad.  Not far behind and rapidly growing its user base are the Google Android tablets.  The Android provides a greater range of choices while still providing access to thousands of cool and useful applications.  Soon there will be other entrants like the HP tablet based on the Palm OS.  The interesting thing is not what is coming out, but where is the 800lb gorilla?  It seems very hard to hide a beast of that size, but yet the gorilla has remained hidden.  You cannot even hear it whisper.

At the recent Consumer and Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was on stage delivering the keynote address.  What I guess was interesting about the whole presentation was not what he said but what he did not say.  At a trade show where everything was focused on tablets, Ballmer talked about everything but a tablet.  His big thing was Microsoft’s foray into engineering and developing for ARM (for you non-techies who read my blog it’s a microprocessor like Intel).  This should not be trivialized, this could have benefits.  However it is short on sex appeal.  Unlike some tech shows where new things are touted at CES, tablets were new, but there were sales to back it up.  So it was not just another gizmo.

Since CES we have seen launches of new Tablets like the Samsung Galaxy and iPad 2.  We see them developing channels for resale through the service providers.  Companies like AT&T and Verizon are eager to have these devices on their network as they can drive data plans.  Microsoft for years has been trying to build a resale channel with the Telco’s. An old boss of mine is in charge of creating the worldwide reseller channel with the telecommunications carriers.  What does he tell them when they ask, “what’s your tablet strategy?”  He also used to tell me in sales, “You are what your numbers say you are”. In its first weekend of sales the Apple iPad 2 sold over 500,000 tablets.     Now we can have positive adjectives to describe our numbers, which is fun or we can have negative adjectives to describe our numbers, which is pro fain.  Apple and Google would both have very colorful adjectives.  Microsoft, well lets just say they may need to spend time in the confessional booth .

One thing that seems to be holding Microsoft back and seems to fuel a lot of speculation and gossip is what  operating system will they use, when they do come out with a tablet (I gotta admit I am guessing on this one as I have seen nothing in the press or heard from old friends about this one)?  The debate is between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7.  Do you mimic what Apple did with the iPhone and simply enlarge to the iPad or do you go with your bread and butter, your flagship product, Windows.  I can say from a historical point of view when push comes to shove, the big boys at Microsoft always win, with that in mind it would seem Windows 7 will come out on top.  All I know is while the debate rages on the market does not stop.

When thinking about what is going on can history really repeat itself again?  Microsoft was in the Smartphone business for quite some time before Apple joined the party with the iPhone, and before they could respond out the gates and off to the races came Google’s Android platform.  By the time Windows Phone 7 came out the market was in a mature phase, so the Windows Phone was just another player trying to be heard. The Tablet business is similar in many ways. Microsoft has been in the Tablet business even longer than the phone business, as the vision of a more interactive device had long been a pet project of Bill Gate’s.  Yet as I sit in my office it seems as if history has already repeated itself.  Apple came out withe iPad but not far behind, once again, was Google with their Android based Tablets.   To be honest this is all eerily similar to the early days of the PC industry where Apple made the expensive high-end computers and Microsoft did the cheaper low-end computers, except now we can replace Windows with Android.  One area of my theory can be brought into doubt by one single question, “Where is the Microsoft Tablet”?

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 24th 2011