Microsoft’s official unveiling of its new Windows Phone system – complete with Stephen Fry’s headline-grabbing on-stage eulogising – is notable for many things.
Firstly, the company has finally cottoned onto the fact that mobile experiences need to be tailored towards the user, rather than offering a dazzling range of befuddling options hidden beneath counter-intuitive menus.
It also shows that despite a crowded smartphone marketplace, there’s sufficient wiggle-room for new ideas and challengers.
However, most importantly of all, it hints that Google’s recent run of success with Android may be under threat.
Let’s be honest here, Windows Phone is a bigger danger to Android than it is to the iPhone. Your average Apple fan buys into the brand – they don’t just want functionality from their device, they want to feel that they’re purchasing an exclusive item.
An iPhone is singular vision from a hardware manufacturer which – as the aforementioned gadget-lover Mr. Fry puts it – creates emotions rather than products that can be tiresomely deconstructed in dull spec sheets.
Android – and Windows Phone – are different. There are countless handsets being manufactured by competing companies, dashing any hopes of Google scoring the same degree of brand loyalty.
The diversity present in the different Android “skins” – such as HTC’s Sense, Sony Ericsson’s TimeScape and Motorola’s MotoBlur – means that there are many users out there that probably aren’t even aware that their heavily customised Android phone is part of a much bigger picture.
This is dangerous for Android, because without the same kind of loyalty fostered by iPhone lovers, there’s nothing to stop people moving over to Windows Phone. Unlike iPhone – which is one product made by one company – Windows Phone and Android are essentially fighting for the same sector of the market.
The fact that many firms that have thus far supported Android with considerable gusto have also flocked to Microsoft’s banner (HTC, Samsung, LG, Dell) should also set alarm bells ringing. These firms are clearly indebted to Google for handing them a best-selling mobile OS to bung onto their handsets, but it’s clear that they will quite happily support rivals if they smell profit in the air.
The threat is amplified when you consider that Windows Phone boasts extensive “always on” connectivity – with constantly updating on-screen widgets and the like – and this is also one of Android’s biggest selling points. As the recent demonstrations have shown, the Windows Phone homescreen is awash with real-time information, making the experience seem more alive even than Android.
One final point that’s worth observing is Windows Phone’s lack of heavy manufacturer customisation. From what we’ve seen so far, the experience is going to be fairly uniform over all of the different Windows Phone handsets, which is in stark contrast to the variety shown with Android.
While manufacturers of Android phones love to differentiate their devices with attractive skins, it creates headaches for users as updates are reduced to a crawl. Android 2.2 is the latest iteration of the operating system, yet there are still handsets being sold in stores that are lumbered with the outdated version 1.6.
If Microsoft can avoid this pitfall with regular and uniform firmware updates – which roll out across the whole network, rather than just people with specific phones – then it will score a big advantage over the Android.
It’s clearly too early to really tell if Windows Phone can consume some of Android’s burgeoning market share. Google has gleefully carved up much of Palm and RIM’s part of the pie, but this rapid expansion could soon be brought to a halt if Microsoft can get a foothold.