[Windows Phone 7 has the potential to redraw the smartphone competitive landscape and accelerate the evolution of the mobile value-chain. With the arrival of WP7 just around the corner, VisionMobile Research Partner Michael Vakulenko explains what success of the platform can potentially mean for the industry and why Microsoft's mobile comeback should be closely watched.]
This article is also available in Chinese
Just over a year ago I had written how Apple’s iPhone and Google Android will capture leadership positions in the smartphone race, leaving behind all the legacy smartphone operating systems. Indeed, one year later iPhone and Android are confidently cruising ahead on the tailwinds of consumer, operator and developer ecosystem support.
Symbian continues to submerge into irrelevance distracted by its venture into open-source waters. The only two handset makers who are members of Symbian Foundation board recently jumped the ship. Both Samsung and Sony Ericsson lately said that they do not plan any new Symbian handsets. Worst yet, major chipset makers are scaling down their efforts to support Symbian. The direction is clear: Symbian is soon to become Nokia-only internal OS hidden behind Qt application framework.
RIM is steadily drifting towards mid-, low-end of the smartphone market. Contrary to common perception, enterprise users are no longer the platform’s most important audience. Over half of the subscriber base and 80% of Blackberry growth comes from the consumer space. The reason is the viral effect of Blackberry Messenger application popular with teenage kids and college students.
Contrary to Nokia and RIM, Microsoft took proactive approach. Instead of patching the leaking boat of Windows Mobile, the Redmond giant build ground-up a new smartphone platform carefully designed to address challenges presented by iOS and Android.
Make no mistake, Microsoft’s primary motivation for Windows Phone aren’t its software licensing fees. The real motivation is the need to protect Microsoft core businesses of Windows and Office product lines. Mobile and smartphones became pervasive. Microsoft must have a convincing mobile story to prevent increasing numbers of users churning to Apple and Google product ecosystems.
There are reports claiming that Apple sells just as many computers as Dell to college students. Naturally, a decision to buy a Mac is much more easier for a person already owning an iPhone. A person regularly using GMail or Google Apps on a PC and Android phone is much more prone to dropping Outloook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint in favor of cloud-based alternatives from Google.
With absolute majority of Microsoft operating profits coming from licensing of Windows OS and Office applications, the software giant cannot afford losing users to Apple or Google. Both Windows and Office must be augmented by the ‘mobile screen’ to remain competitive.
A comeback in the making?
Based on pre-release information, Windows Phone 7 has all the necessary ingredients to become a powerful contender in the smartphone race.
First, there is clear differentiation thanks to fresh user interface and deep integration with Microsoft on-line services and products.
The UI and the interaction model are based on well-received Zune HD Player (funnily enough there is Zune Home app on Android Market, which replicates Zune HD look & feel on Android). Finally we see refreshing departure from icon-based navigation that became de-facto standard following iPhone introduction.
The user experience is closely integrated with Windows Live, Xbox Live, Bing Maps cloud services, Zune content platform, together with pervasive Office and Exchange. Microsoft has impressive number of users registered for its on-line services – 360M Hotmail accounts, 299M Messenger accounts, 23M Xbox Live subscriptions. This will certainly help driving Windows Phone adoption.
Second, when it comes to developers Microsoft is playing on its home ground leveraging established developer ecosystem and excellent development tools. Windows Phone 7 application development is based on Silverlight UI framework and XNA game runtime. Both are well-known to large number of PC and Xbox developers eager to apply their skills in mobile environment. Consider that Windows Phone 7 Beta SDK was downloaded 200,000 time in just 2 days since its general availability. Instead of wresting developers from iOS and Android platforms, Microsoft can tap into large pool of loyal .NET and XNA programmers, converting them into an army of mobile developers.
Developer monetization is high on Microsoft’s agenda. Windows Phone Marketplace avoids the pitfalls of the competing platforms promising predictable and transparent approval process, lack of handset fragmentation, localization, try-before-buy model, app beta testing program, and tools for active promotion of the content in the Windows Marketplace.
Third, operator billing supported by Windows Phone Marketplace will be instrumental in winning operator subsidy and marketing budgets from iPhone and Android. These budgets are critically important for the platform success. Windows Marketplace already supports operator billing for older Windows Mobile platform. This experience will help Microsoft quickly introduce operator billing for growing number of operators. Sure enough, Microsoft can be flexible on splitting 30% of app sales revenue share with operators. Not surprisingly, all five major UK operators will be selling Windows Phone 7 handsets at launch.
All these combined with familiar consumer brand and a huge $500M marketing budget (more than 5 times bigger than any previous Windows Mobile launch) makes Windows Phone 7 a convincing entry to the smartphone game. This entry is already supported by a lineup of handset makers from experienced mobile players like Samsung, HTC and LG, to PC specialists like Dell and Asus.
So what’s the catch? Windows Phone success will ultimately depend on Microsoft’s ability to execute on the promise. Microsoft will need to deliver solid product experience, prove monetization potential for operators and developers, and keep the momentum by following up with subsequent platform versions. Without these, Windows Phone 7 will only remain a great promise.
What will Windows Phone’s success mean for the mobile industry?
The mobile industry has radically changed in the recent years. In an industry where the only constant is change, what impact will the success of Windows Phone have on the mobile industry?
The hardware specs of leaked Windows Phone handsets from HTC, Samsung, LG, Dell, Asus and Toshiba reveal striking similarity between the models. All are based on QUALCOMM’s Snapdragon chipset. The variations are limited to industrial design, amount of memory, optional physical keyboard and FM radio. Are we entering PC-like era in smartphones, where industry will converge on a small number of hardware configurations? Will we see emergence of ‘Wincomm’ alliance in mobile similar to ‘Wintel’ in PC? Value-chain evolution theory says this is not question of ‘if’, but the question of ‘when’. Windows Phone 7 looks like a natural catalyst for this to happen much sooner than some companies would hope for.
This will be great news for low-cost ‘assemblers’ like Dell, Acer and Asus, who lack significant software capabilities and experience. With Windows Phone software and QUALCOMM’s support these companies can readily replicate their PC business models, brands and experience, while thriving on single digit operating margins. To do so, they only need to focus on building hardware platforms for Microsoft software, while leveraging pre-integration with QUALCOMM chips for fast time to market. Microsoft definitely learned from mistakes made with Windows Mobile. This time the approach is closer to the PC model: ODMs are given exact specification of how the hardware platform should look like. From the screen size, to amount of memory, to number of navigation buttons on the device.
For low-cost ‘assemblers’ Android proved to be too difficult to productize. Dell Aero is one example, which is four Android versions behind now. Using Windows Phone software will significantly lower barrier to entry on the software side. Paying software licensing fees to Microsoft may prove a better way forward than a crappy product that doesn’t sell.
On the other side, these will be very bad news for high-margin branded OEMs like Motorola and Sony Ericsson. Such OEMs will have little chance to protect their business from increasing competition from low-margin assemblers. Adopting Windows Phone won’t help: Microsoft is determined to maintain tight control over the platform and limit OEM differentiation opportunities.
Increasing smartphone commoditization accelerated by the entry of low-cost ‘assemblers’ will certainly put strain on today’s leaders, Apple and Google. Apple seems to be well-positioned to keep its positions in the mid-term. But will we see its vertical integration becoming a liability in the next phases of value-chain evolution? The phases where flexibility and customization of commodity products will favour modular solutions.
For Google things can quickly get challenging. Android is yet to grow into a recognizable consumer brand being concealed by operator and handset maker brands (e.g. Droid and Sense). What if Android will get squeezed between style-conscious consumers opting for iPhone and masses of mainstream users opting for the comfort of familiar Windows brand? Will we see Android slowing down and struggle outside the group of tech-savvy users?
What about mobile operators? Windows Phone success will increase the dominance of non-mobile players in the mobile ecosystem and their control over user experience. The distance between user and operator will inevitably increase, and we will see more and more mobile operators settling on the role of a ‘pipe’ satisfied by getting a share of app and content sale revenues.
Tipping the scales of the smarpthone market
If successful, Windows Phone 7 will catalyze further shifts in the mobile industry bringing PC-style commoditization and increasing distance between operators and their subscribers.
Microsoft and low-cost, PC style ‘assemblers’ will be the main winners driving smartphone price declines. High-margin branded OEMs will have no choice but to look for new ways to create value to operators. This is to snatch critically important subsidy and marketing budgets from Apple and RIM.
Apple and Google won’t wait long to make Microsoft’s life harder. Google can be exposed on multiple fronts and finally will have to pay closer attention to operator and developer interests.
Things will continue to be interesting in mobile in the foreseeable future.
How do you think things will shape up with Windows Phone? Who will be a winner and who will be a loser?
[Michael Vakulenko is a Research Partner at VisionMobile. He has been working in the mobile industry for over 16 years starting his career in wireless in Qualcomm. Michael has experience across many aspects of mobile technologies including handset software, mobile services, network infrastructure and wireless system engineering. He can be reached at michael [/at/] visionmobile.com]