Apple released its first iPhone in 2007, essentially defined the smartphone ecosystem, and jumped to an impressive early lead. But with a more open platform and cheaper hardware, Google Android has grabbed a commanding 35% share of smartphone subscribers. Apple is holding flat around 25%.
Microsoft entered the smartphone market late in 2010 with Windows Phone 7 (WP7), which was already generations behind competing platforms and lacked key features like copy/paste and multitasking. WP7 is also incompatible with previous versions of Windows Mobile, so existing users have no allegiance to the new Windows phones, and hence are just as likely to switch to iPhone or Android. As a result, Microsoft’s share of the smartphone market is only 8% and dropping.
Microsoft Phones Nokia
Hardware manufacturers are also giving Microsoft the cold shoulder. Microsoft had to pay Nokia a billion dollars for a non-exclusive partnership to build Windows phones. But another phone giant Motorola has no plans to release a Windows Phone because “there were a bunch of things that we believed about Microsoft that ended up not being true, mostly about what functionality it would have in what period of time,” said a Motorola vice president of product management.
She went on to say that Motorola is looking “to create unique value” that’s simply not possible on a “closed platform” like Windows Phone. But WP7 is no more closed than the gated community of iOS, which seems to be doing just fine. However, Microsoft could indeed do more to open up the Windows Phone platform, such as sanctioning a jailbreak tool (or at least looking the other way).
Developers Make the Platform
Failing to capture the hearts and minds of consumers and phone manufacturers, Microsoft must now focus on app developers and hope they can build some value in the Windows Phone ecosystem. However Microsoft has fallen behind here too. Currently there are 330K iPhone apps, 206K Android apps, but only 12K Windows Phone apps.
Looking on the bright side, fewer apps means less competition and perhaps more opportunity for Windows Phone developers. A big splash in the small pond of Windows Phone could translate to better business in the much bigger and more crowded iOS and Android app markets.
But first, Microsoft must entice developers to invest the significant time and resources necessary to build apps on a Windows Phone platform that’s quite different from iOS and Android. Unfortunately, a recent survey by Appcelerator shows that only 29% of developers are interested in Windows Phone, versus a whopping 91% interested in iPhone and 85% in Android.
Windows Phone is Down But Not Out
Things are looking bleak for Microsoft in the smartphone market, but never count out a company with $50 billion cash on hand and Bill Gates on its Board of Directors. Following are some major initiatives that Microsoft hopes will shift the tide in favor of Windows Phone:
API Mapping Tool. To lure iPhone developers, Microsoft released an iOS-to-WP7 API Mapping Tool. This is like a travel dictionary that helps iPhone developers translate their iOS app code to Windows Phone. Developers can quickly find equivalent classes, methods, and events in WP7, along with sample C# code and API documentation for both platforms.
MonoTouch and MonoDroid. Novell has released an impressive multi-platform development system based on the .NET Framework. MonoTouch enables developers to build native iPhone and iPad apps using their favorite .NET language and tools, such as C# and Visual Studio. Similarly, MonoDroid builds native Android apps with .NET. This theoretically allows developers to use the same .NET codebase across iOS, Android and WP7 apps, though in reality there are still major incompatibilities across platforms, especially with user interface code.
Windows Phone 7.1. This fall Microsoft is releasing the first major update for Windows Phone, code-named Mango. It will include 500 new features such as multitasking, hands-free voice-to-text, better integration with social-networking apps, and support for HTML5 in Internet Explorer 9. Hopefully the 7.1 update will go better than the rocky first update of Windows Phone that failed for 10% of its users.
Windows 8. The most anticipated feature in the next generation of Microsoft’s venerable desktop operating system is support for low-powered processors found in tablets and smartphones. This would allow Microsoft to run full-fledged Windows on a wide variety of devices and provide a deep level of integration that’s not available today. However, most Windows applications would also require serious rework to handle fat fingers and gestures instead of the traditional keyboard and mouse.
It’s Not Over Until It’s Over
Just two years ago, many analysts believed that Apple had already won and would forever dominate the smartphone market. Yet Android very quickly usurped both Blackberry and the iPhone to gain a commanding lead. So things can change quickly with technology, but sometimes for the worse, such as when Microsoft killed the Kin smartphone after only a few embarrassing months of meager sales.
But don’t expect Microsoft to give up so easily on Windows Phone. Many people believe the smartphone and tablet will eventually replace a large portion of PC sales, so Windows Phone is key to Microsoft’s long-term success.
Article published on May 26, 2011
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