Microsoft Shows its Cards with Windows Phone 7
As the launch of Windows Phone 7 approaches the question in everyone’s mind is: is it too late for Microsoft to secure a leading position in mobile? We’re now at year 3 “Ai” (After the iPhone). In the last 3 years the landscape has changed dramatically:
- Apple launched 4 successful phones plus the iPad
- Google launched Android and quickly secured a market leading position
- RIM has lost some ground with two under achieving devices (Storm and Torch)
- Palm launched the failed Pre and ran out of cash
- Once almighty Symbian faded
- Nokia and Intel joined forces with Meego
- Samsung launched Bada….
all this… and Microsoft has yet to make its first move.
In a platform battle that is surely to consolidate, in the limit, to likely one big winner plus niche players, it’s not a pretty situation for Microsoft. But if you are in Redmond you can’t afford to lose in mobile. PC shipments are an increasingly small share of device shipments, with mobile devices enjoying all the growth. Losing in mobile would relegate the Windows platform from a virtual monopoly to a minority player in only a few years when looking at all connected devices.
The question is what cards does Redmond have to play (besides a ton of cash)?
The February preview of Windows Phone 7 in Barcelona and the recent news from Gamescom (see articles here and here) provide us with a strong clue: Microsoft is going to play the Xbox card in a big way. Microsoft is going after gamers (users and developers) in a desperate move to gain relevance in mobile. It makes sense for them. When compared to market leaders Apple, Google and RIM, Microsoft’s advantage in gaming sticks out like a sore thumb. Microsoft’s leading Xbox console and Live service will serve as Microsoft’s beachhead for its mobile attack. In the same way that Apple leveraged iTunes to enter a new market and RIM is leveraging its enterprise base of email addicts to buy time, Microsoft will leverage its Xbox assets to establish a position in mobile. This is obviously a big departure from Windows Mobile’s original base of business users (in case you haven’t been watching, Microsoft lost the battle among business users long ago).
As is apparent from the Gamescom articles referenced above, gaming will be the major differentiator for Windows Phone 7. 50 titles were announced as just the “first wave.” In addition, Microsoft is planning to integrate the Xbox Live experience into Windows Phone 7 to make Xbox Live users feel at home on Windows Phone. For example the Xbox gamer profile that contains your avatar, reputation, online status, and achievements will follow you seamlessly from console to mobile and back. Many of the same titles you are already familiar with on the console will be in mobile as well and you’ll be able to easily play multi-player games on the Live service. It has also been reported that Microsoft is paying iPhone developers to port their games to Windows 7, a tactic commonly used in the industry, but it is another clue that gaming is the key planned differentiator for Microsoft. Another important clue is the emphasis on XNA as a way to create applications for Windows Phone 7. XNA is Microsoft’s toolset and runtime environment for game development that supports the Xbox, Windows and is now a very prominent part of Windows Phone. XNA was also a very prominent part of Microsoft’s recent training for developers.
The following recent quotes from Microsoft spokespeople provide clues to Redmond’s strategy:
- “Windows Phone 7 is the launch of a major gaming platform for Microsoft,” Matt Booty, General Manager of Mobile Gaming at Microsoft Game Studios.
- “We’re really approaching this as we would a console, so we have to deliver the breadth of games and the quality people expect from Xbox,” said Kevin Unangst, senior director of PC and mobile gaming. “To have this quantity and quality of games committed this far ahead of launch, with even more to come, is a statement of support that says Windows Phone 7 will be a big success.”
- Kevin Unangst: “Starting with the announcement today, we’re going to bring a set of high -quality games and experiences, all using Xbox LIVE, to bear at the launch of the Windows Phone 7.”
Clearly Apple will fight hard in this segment of the market. Despite original criticism that a device with a single button could not deliver a great gaming experience, Apple has proven critics wrong. And with innovations such as the new gyroscope in the iPhone 4, Apple will raise the gaming experience another notch. Still, there is a base of hard core gamers (see this post) that don’t buy into the iPhone as a gaming platform that can provide a seam for Microsoft to exploit.
I personally think it is going to be really tough for Microsoft to get in the game. The market window is closing fast. Traditional Microsoft OEM partners like HTC (Microsoft’s largest OEM partner) and Motorola are having great success with Android already. However, I do think Redmond is playing a sensible card. To have a shot Microsoft needs to pick a target segment and put all the wood behind that arrow. Going after its own base of Xb0x users and developers a logical move for them.
This does not mean that Windows Phone devices won’t support other functions. To be successful devices will need to attract other genres as well (social networking, music, etc.), but Microsoft devices don’t need to differentiate with them. To borrow Geoffrey Moore’s terminology, gaming will be “core” to Windows Phone 7 and everything else will be “context.” The strategy is to focus the innovation in gaming and copy others everywhere else.
What do you think? Can Microsoft still get in the game and be a contender? What other cards can Microsoft play?