Opinion: Seven problems Microsoft will have to overcome to make Windows Phone 7 a success

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A lot has changed in the world of mobile games in the past 10 years and that’s something we’re considering as we repost PocketGamer.biz articles from the past decade.

This week, we consider the challenges Microsoft didn’t overcome as it attempted to get into the mobile OS market. 

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[June 28th, 2010] To be a phoenix from the flames, you first have to have been cast into the fire.

Windows Phone 7 – billed as Microsoft’s final attempt to take on iPhone – only exists because, over the years, Windows Mobile failed to meet expectations.

So there’s been plenty of attention on Microsoft’s plans for its new smartphone OS, and plenty of positive statements from its partner OEMs too, but all is not rosy in its run towards release this autumn.

If Microsoft is to become a major player in the smartphone market, these are the issues it needs to address.

1. Who’s going to support Windows Phone 7?

While the industry is desperate for more challengers to come forward against Apple and iPhone, Android has filled the gap for many handset manufacturers with one-time Microsoft stalwart HTC, in particular, riding high on the back of Google’s OS. Motorola is another big name that’s converted to Android for its high-end smartphones. 

The world’s second biggest manufacturer, Samsung, is now putting its considerable weight behind its own socially-focused bada OS, while Nokia is preparing for a relaunch via its high-profile pairing with Intel in the form of MeeGo. Symbian and Linux are still around too. 

Of course, despite Microsoft’s tight hardware specifications, there will be support. Samsung will release some Windows Phone 7 devices, as will LG, Acer and Asus-Garmin but it will be interesting to see where the real volumes will come from, especially in the early days. 

2. Too little, too late?

Walk into any mobile store now and you won’t find any shop assistants hyping the release of Windows Phone 7. But how the OS and its handsets will be received on the high street will depend on just how much buzz Microsoft is able to develop amongst consumers.

Yet, many in the industry remain bitter about the billing Microsoft awarded Windows Mobile 6.5 – supposedly pitched as the update that would propel the OS back into the smartphone race. It didn’t. 

Like the boy who cried wolf, Windows Phone 7 – and, indeed, the wider Windows Phone re-branding – has been met with some cyncism, and perhaps nowhere more than from retailers.

Windows Mobile’s legacy may well prove to be the undoing of all the good work Microsoft has accomplished since.

3. Isn’t Windows about work?

What’s surprising about Windows Mobile is the major role the OS continues to play in enterprise. Even while consumer sales were dropping, WinMob was able to fall back on its sales within the business community where it was in a straight fight with BlackBerry.

However, talk amongst analysts suggests the wider success of Windows within enterprise harms the brand’s appeal with consumers. While Apple is perceived as a creative tool for leisure, Windows is viewed as an OS for the office.

By holding onto the Windows name – as opposed to using the Xbox name, for instance – Microsoft may find it struggles to reach the kinds of consumers iPhone appeals to.

4. Forget iPhone. Can it be a BlackBerry killer?

Steve Ballmer’s recent admission Microsoft had missed a cycle on mobile was as candid as it was accurate.

While the giant shifted focus to Windows Phone 7, the role its predecessor has had in the enterprise market has started to fade, giving RIM an stronger hand with BlackBerry.

The company has since built on this, successfully shifting its focus to younger consumers, making BlackBerry a key brand especially in North and South America. 

To regain its footing in enterprise, Windows Phone 7 will have to offer up something tangible to business that BlackBerry doesn’t. And then it will also have to appeal to consumers.

When you consider BlackBerry itself is due a major upgrade – OS 6.0 due to launch sometime between July and September 2010 – that’s a moving target for Microsoft to aim for.

5. Will mobile game developers support XNA?

The main problem any new smartphone marketplace faces when launched fresh into the market is its small userbase, which doesn’t encourage developers to create original content. 

As such, an abundance of ports in a format’s early days is a necessity to ensure a sufficient amount of software for those consumers who do make the early leap.

It’s a pump Microsoft is making sure is primed by paying studios to port their iPhone content.

But the relative difficulty – and, indeed, expense – for developers looking to rework games written in C++ or Objective C for XNA or Silverlight will limit the number of studios supporting Windows Phone 7 until the userbase is big enough to warrant that kind of attention.

6. How to balance fragmentation?

Though there’s an argument to say its role has been inflated by the press, fragmentation is nonetheless an issue that has blighted Android – many consumers are unaware what particular flavour of the OS they’re running, with OEMs and operators choosing different options dependent on their particular business models.

That’s likely to be less of an issue with Windows Phone 7 – its UI is arguably its greatest strength, and it’s unlikely Microsoft will allow its partners to mess with it.

The company has also stated it has a strong delivery mechanism for small over-the-air and larger (via PC) OS updates that all Windows Phone 7 devices will receive. 

However, over time, some fragmentation will naturally occur, as we’re seeing across the iPhone range.

The bottomline is fragmentation is natural in the mobile world, so eventually Microsoft will need to give OEMs and carriers the flexibility to run their own businesses. 

7. Can the Windows Phone 7 brand compete with iPhone?

Even considering the sales it has amassed, there are plenty of consumers with Android handsets in their pockets who have no idea their phones run the OS.

Google has been unable to attach the kind of brand awareness to Android that iPhone enjoys, largely because the OS is stretched across multiple formats, made by scores of different manufacturers.

Microsoft, however, appears to be setting its stall out rather differently. Its early promo efforts – most notably on WindowsPhone7 – put the OS at the centre, with the handsets themselves something of a footnote.

Indeed, each handset running Windows Phone 7 has to be bespoke – Microsoft appears determined to ensure its great hope doesn’t get lost in amongst other devices, carriers and OEMs when it reaches retail.

So unlike with Android, consumers should know it’s a Windows Phone 7 they’re buying, regardless of the handset, enabling it to pitch the OS as a direct alternative to iPhone.

Keeping all of its partners on board, however, while stealing the majority of the limelight for itself will be no easy task, but if Windows Phone 7 is to expand its appeal beyond enterprise, taking mindshare, if not market share, from iPhone will be key.

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