New smartphone launches force buyers to bet
When Microsoft introduced its Windows Phone 7 operating system on Monday, it couldn't make its traditional sales pitch to consumers: We're Microsoft, this product has "Windows" in its name, get on board now!
Instead, it had to ask something different: Trust us to build this platform.
You've heard that before from other companies. Smartphones may be the most interesting product of the electronics industry, but the flip side of that excitement is uncertainty. Buying into a new phone platform amounts to placing an expensive bet, equal to the cost of the phone, plus the cost of its required service plan, plus the cost of any apps you buy -- plus the opportunity cost of not being able to switch to a competing phone for the next two years.
Sometimes the bet pays off. Apple had never built a phone before launching the iPhone in 2007, but that venture has succeeded beyond any sane expectation. Google's Android operating system didn't reach the market until the iPhone had secured an enormous head start, but it's on its way to passing Apple.
Sometimes a new phone venture sinks almost instantly, like Microsoft's Kin, which the company axed less than two months after it arrived in stores. Other platforms don't crumble until years of success tempt their developers to slack off. Palm's defunct Palm OS and Microsoft's now-abandoned Windows Mobile come to mind.
And then there are the cases that leave buyers wondering if they bet on the wrong contender.
Palm's webOS looked like a breakthrough when it debuted on its Pre smartphone two summers ago. Less than a year later, without any significant hardware upgrades and with support stalled from third-party software developers, Palm's project appeared to be circling the drain. Now that HP has bought the company, its prospects look brighter, but only if HP's financial backing helps it ship a reinvigorated lineup of phones that sell well enough to draw renewed interest from programmers.
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft seems to be off to a better start than Palm in some important ways. It has lined up the likes of Dell, HTC, LG and Samsung to build devices running this software, to be sold by AT&T and T-Mobile, thereby avoiding Palm's mistake of introducing one phone on one carrier.
But WP7's software selection seems even more up in the air than Palm's did when the Pre launched. At its launch event in New York on Monday, it showed off programs from such name-brand sources as Twitter, eBay, Netflix, EA, Slacker and Amazon's IMDB; others are on the way, such as Foursquare's upcoming app. And one of the most important mobile applications, Facebook, comes built into Windows Phone 7.
(The companies that rush to ship software for new phones face risks of their own. Yelp shipped an app for webOS early on but now seems to have come down with a case of developer's remorse.)
But think about all the names we haven't heard from yet: Evernote, Dropbox, Yelp, OpenTable and Pandora, to name a few. Quantity counts, as well, and here Microsoft will inevitably start out light-years behind the iPhone and Android. Microsoft may brag about "thousands" of apps in the works, but I would be surprised if a four-digit number of apps were available when the first WP7 phone, AT&T's Samsung Focus, ships Nov. 8.
For Windows Phone 7 to secure a viable share of the market, Microsoft will have to work with the tenacity of a Chilean miner at getting developers to spend time writing apps for it -- presumably, after they've already put in time on separate iPhone and Android programs.
Windows Phone 7 buyers also have to trust that the company will keep plugging away at its own software, adding such missing features as copy and paste (promised for early next year), visual voicemail, video conferencing and voice text input.
For all of those obstacles, however, Windows Phone 7 seems a safer bet than this season's other product launch: the PlayBook tablet computer coming from Research In Motion. That device represents RIM's first venture into a new category of hardware, and it doesn't run on the same operating system as RIM's BlackBerry phones.
Windows Phone 7 has one other thing going for it: Microsoft doesn't have any other options left. Either this platform succeeds, or the company gets wiped off the map in the most exciting part of the computer industry.
This post is a draft of this weekend's column, and you can help make it better. What factors do you consider when deciding whether to invest in a new computing platform? What warning signs do you watch out for? How long will you wait to judge a new smartphone operating system a success?
| October 14, 2010; 5:29 PM ET
Categories: Digital culture, Mobile
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