You can say what you will about Windows Phone and Windows 8’s Metro interface (I refuse to drop that name) – it’s inefficient, unpopular, cumbersome, beautiful, ugly, organised, clean, limiting – but there’s one thing we can all agree on: it’s unique and distinctive. CNet has published a profile of Microsoft’s Albert Shum, the man behind Metro, and he highlights what I think is at the very core of Microsoft’s problems in mobile right now.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the article, but one part stood out to me because it really touches upon the very core of Microsoft’s problems right now.
“This isn’t about skeuomorphism,” Shum said. “It’s about shifting the paradigm” away from those representations of physical objects to cleaner, crisper graphics.
For Microsoft to have any success with Windows Phone, that’s key. Shum and his colleagues realize that to win over smartphone customers, they can’t simply produce an operating system that’s merely a better version of what rivals are already making.
“We have a very clear point of view,” Shum said. “We’re very clear about that.”
It’s easy to conclude that because of the (so far) failure of Windows Phone’s and Windows 8’s Metro to make any significant dent in the market, Metro as a whole, and thus, digital design, is not what consumers want. In less obtuse words, that Metro is the reason why Windows Phone and Windows 8 aren’t successful.
This reasoning has never held up to scrutiny very well. Quantity does not equate quality – if it were, Windows would be the best desktop operating system by a huge margin, and Mac OS X, Linux, and other systems are all piles of junk. Following this broken line of reasoning, those horrible Transformer films are better instances of cinematography than, say, Philadelphia (two random examples). You could go on for bloody hours with examples like this.
The supposed relationship between quantity and quality is often abused when arguing the merits of one computing platform over the other. This has gone through a bit of a resurgence these past few years when talking about application stores for mobile platforms, with Apple, Google, Microsoft, BlackBerry, and their respective supporters, touting the amount of applications in their store as some sort of measure of quality – even though for each and every one of those stores, 99.5% of the applications within it are crap, at best, or spam, at worst.
I’d love it if companies released figures about this, but I’d guess that about 80% of applications in the App Store and Play Store aren’t downloaded more than a few hundred times. Considering the installed base of both platforms, that’s pathetic. You could remove all of this superfluous stuff from the stores, and nobody would care. In fact, Google removed 60000 applications from the Play Store in February; I doubt anyone cared.
While it is possible that consumers really don’t like Metro and that thus, it is a contributing factor to Microsoft’s lack of success, there’s no way to confirm there’s a causal relationship between the two. This is where the second point raised by Shum in the quote above comes into play.
Shum states that in order for Windows Phone to succeed, it can’t just create a slightly better version of what the competition has to offer. Here, I think, is where Windows Phone’s problems lie (and to a lesser extent, Windows 8’s problems in mobile as well). As much as I personally like Windows Phone and prefer it over iOS and Android, I’m clear-minded enough to see that it simply isn’t significantly better than the competition. There’s nothing you can do on Windows Phone that you can’t do on iOS or Android; in fact, I would say that there’s a lot Windows Phone cannot do that especially Android can.
Even if you simply compare the base features iOS, Android, and Windows Phone have, there’s nothing Windows Phone really does better. I personally think the interface is a bit more pleasant for the way I use my smartphone, but it’s not like moving back to iOS or Android (or even Symbian Belle) leaves me craving for my preferred platform.
Sure, Windows Phone is distinctly different from its competitors in how it looks, but just as quantity does not equate to quality, nor does being different. Microsoft’s advertising for Windows Phone and Windows 8 focuses heavily on this particular aspect – being different – but if users don’t see any benefits they won’t care about it at all.
In order for Microsoft to convince users to switch to Windows Phone, the company has to offer significant advantages over the competition, and so far, they have simply failed to do so. I have no idea what Microsoft needs to do in order to overcome this problem, but it looks like what they’ve been doing so far has not made much of a difference. While carriers may play a role in the US and other restricted smartphone markets, many of us Europeans are free to choose whatever we want – so no, I don’t think carriers are the solution to Microsoft’s problems either.
BlackBerry is in the same boat as Microsoft, and Ubuntu, Mozilla, and Jolla are all in danger of joining them. These newcomers to the market need to take a long and hard look at what Microsoft has been doing wrong with Windows Phone, and hopefully, learn from it. I don’t want the current horror scenario of an 80-20 split between Android and iOS respectively to be maintained for much longer.