What Steve Ballmer needs to do to save Microsoft's mobile bacon

A wasted decade on Windows Mobile threatens Microsoft's relevance in the future of computing

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Ironically, Microsoft has occasionally shown itself capable of design excellence: The original Excel was the first application to show that a graphical UI wasn't just for pretty pictures, and its success is what I believe made Windows possible. Before that, the original Word was a very well-designed application in a sea of ungainly competitors back in the DOS era.

The bottom line: If you can't do something at a level of excellence, pull it. Add it later, when it's truly ready, as a free update. Get out of the crapware and shovelware business -- you won't believe the kind of loyalty you'll get if you deliver quality products without compromises. (Just ask Apple.) I'm not suggesting everything be perfect -- often, there's no such thing -- but customers can spot half-assed and rushed a mile away, and you already are too well known for those.

Your new mobile OS needs to run on hardware that oozes quality, fit and finish, and confident capability. You don't need to clone the iPhone to get that; the HTC Droid Incredible is another example, as are the top-end PCs and laptops from Acer, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell. Don't add a ton of perpherals and ports; instead, provide just one or two MicroUSB ports, the fewest buttons needed (without making any one button do unrelated things), a really good camera for still photography and videoconferencing (and remember it's not the megapixels that matter but the CCD quality, despite what the Gizmoids say), an amazing screen with excellent multitouch sensing, a memory card slot, flexible radios (CDMA and GSM 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth not limited to headsets and keyboards, and maybe WiMax), and great audio in/out. A distinctive look that isn't distracing would be icing on that cake.

Furthermore, you should allow only two models: one with a physical keyboard, and one without. Memory and maybe a couple other noncritical features can vary within each model line, but don't create confusion. You don't need 15 different Windows Phone 7 devices of varying quality. You've already been burned going down that road. If you can't bring yourself to having just two models (and thus picking only HTC or Samsung as your hardware partner), enforce very tough requirements on the permissible variability. And don't let HTC add its own UI overlay; like Windows Mobile before it, Android needed the Sense UI to be usable, which, in essence, means they screwed up the OS. If you don't need it, you've just permitted an inconsistency in your platform's core.

Along these lines, don't confuse listening to the customer with delivering what you heard the customers say. Apple succeeds because Steve Jobs and the company's other key leaders have a strong vision, and they deliver it time and time again. Despite their outward arrogance, they do listen to customers, but make their own decisions. That results in cohesive products that more often than not move the ball forward. After all, it is a truism in market research that customers don't know what new features they want, just the ones they know they don't have. You have to invent the future the customers didn't know they wanted until you showed it to them.

Microsoft makes a lot of noise about listening to its customers, but that often leads to muddled products like Vista, whose aspirations of "everything but the kitchen sink OS" couldn't be put together despite the years of efforts and $6 billion or so of investment. Instead, try out novel concepts with users and see how they react; that's more likely to result in positive innovation and identify areas of confusion than trying to please or accommodate everything you hear.

2. Get the basics right
The underlying capabilities in your new mobile platform must be what's needed. Don't do the usual Microsoft thing and skimp. Apple got away with inferior business capabilities around security and manageability in its early iPhones and only in the last year has made serious headway to correct that. You don't have that luxury. Though I believe it harbors a deep desire for the iPhone to be the corporate standard, Apple doesn't pretend to be a business-oriented company; thus, it could ignore that audience and play to its entertainment strengths honed with the iPod and its creative strengths honed with the Mac. Microsoft has no such waves of passion to carry it past key omissions or compromises.

Don't think Windows Mobile's business strengths -- the security and management capabilities where it did lead -- will cut you any slack for the corporate audience. More than half of people who use smartphones in business buy their own, so those IT fond memories don't carry the weight they used to. In business, you're competing with both the iPhone and the BlackBerry. For individuals, you're competing with the iPhone and Android. You can't underperform in any core capabilities.

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