Windows Series 7 Smartphone

Mat Sloan, a Consultant in the UK Marketing, Sales and Service practice assesses whether Microsoft’s eagerly anticipated launch on Monday in the US of a new range of Windows 7 phones will be a success, with their increased focus on the user and customer experience.

In the three years since the immensely successful launch of the iPhone, Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, has shockingly been unable to compete in the mobile market. Their continued willingness to take on the iPhone, Android and other leading smartphone contenders is, on the one hand, a sign of Microsoft’s tenacity.  Furthermore, Microsoft have spent the last 18 months building a completely new mobile platform, Windows 7, from the ‘ground up’ clearly indicating just how keen they are to get it right in the smartphone market.

So much has been said about this product launch already, including by our own Andy Mulholland on its application to the Enterprise and also by Stuart Gordon who has commented on its security. This post today reflects on some of the challenges Microsoft face to address their brand reputation in the mobile space, in order to penetrate a maturing and sceptical consumer market.

Will customers actually care about this new suite of phones enough to even try them out, or, is Microsoft too late and its brand too damaged to crack the iPhone and Android party?

Complacency after such strong beginnings

Smartphones are increasingly part of our lives and this popularity shows no sign of wavering. With their increasing usage as a channel to access the internet and the undeniable popularity of apps, companies such as Microsoft appear acutely aware that mobiles are the future of computing. My own phone, for example, is very much my computer that sits in my pocket.

Analysts Gartner expect almost 270 million smartphones to be sold around the world this year, up 56 per cent from 2009. In comparison, they forecast only a 19 per cent increase in worldwide PC sales to 368 million units this year: a huge incentive for Microsoft to successfully extend its brand and product range into new areas.

User experience should be at the forefront of product design

Microsoft’s strategy to extend itself into potentially lucrative technologies has been hampered by the impressive products of new entrants. In the last few years the ever evolving smartphone market has moved in new directions. The iPhone for example focuses on giving people the now ubiquitous finger control rather than use of a stylus (very much a Microsoft PDA accessory feature). Microsoft has, until now it seems focused on small, incremental and seemingly underwhelming changes to its software rather than the entire user experience.

As a user of its older Windows Mobile software I felt there was little focus on the user in its execution and even the most trivial of tasks was complex.  The platforms are error prone, slow and don’t give the impression that they were designed with the user in mind. With brand associations such as these it is no wonder that Microsoft has decided it must radically change its mobile offering or die.

Will they succeed?

Before analysing the actual product, an important question to consider is whether the phones will capture customers’ imagination.

Titled : “Windows 7: A Fresh Start for the Smartphone”, Microsoft’s own press release reveals that “The goal for Microsoft’s latest smartphone is an ambitious one: to deliver a phone that truly integrates the things people really want to do, puts those things right in front of them, and either lets them get finished quickly or immerses them in the experience they were seeking.”

Without the back up of so called “A’ list” phone makers and lacking credibility from customers’ after years of pushing out software that seemingly had little customer focus this is a bold statement. So, can they live up to it?

I believe Microsoft can, but, only if they continue their efforts in the following three areas:

Focusing on marketing and brand advocates – the Fry factor

Apple markets the iPhone provocatively and its brand unquestionably delivers (even in the face of adversity). Lets face it, once you pick up an Apple product you’re immediately impressed.  By contrast, Mr Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO recognises that his company “missed a generation” with its recent unpopular phone offerings and that really is a sign of how bad they were and the need for something radical.

The Guardian reports that Microsoft has allocated a $400 million advertising budget, which, is essential to enable them to get noticed with the likes of Apple around (who were recently voted the marketer of the decade of course). Microsoft have also been savvy with their PR in Europe by issuing a new smartphone to Stephen Fry – self confessed techie and of course famously a fiercely loyal Apple affectionate. This is well thought out, since, if he thinks they’re cool (his words were that Microsoft has finally ‘got it’) why won’t others?

Building from the bottom up introducing ‘hubs’

Microsoft says it has made Windows Phone 7 more user-friendly, rebuilding the operating system from the bottom up.  The phone system’s experience is built around so-called hubs that aggregate content like contacts, pictures, documents, and music and video. This is very different from previous versions, and, some early reviews suggest this really enhances the experience.

Developing an online apps store and integrating with games

The Windows Phone 7 platform is backed by an online store, Zune Marketplace, which is similar to Apple’s iTunes but they surely will struggle here given that Apple have over 200,000 apps and a wealth of developer resources building apps every hour of the day. In many ways smartphones are only as good as the apps that are developed for them so this is a crucial category they must develop their capability and popularity with developers in.

One thing certain is that if the phone does end up being a success and, the brand is able to deliver on its provocative advertising campaign it cannot afford to be complacent and must continue to evolve as the market does. Brand loyalty won’t save this product, it simply has to be outstanding to compete.

Finally, I have to say that after designing such a great product, why couldn’t Microsoft take the success of brevity from Apple’s naming conventions? Windows Phone 7 Series doesn’t roll off the tongue as well as the iPhone does it!

Have you tried a new Windows 7 phone? If so, do you think it can compete with the iPhone?