Two phone ecosystems, two very different phone experiences. That’s what the current Smartphone market really looks like. Apple’s IOS and Google’s Android (fragmented as it is). Apple ships out updates to its iPhone user base at regular intervals and has, over a long period of time now, shown that if you buy a phone today it is very likely that you will receive all IOS updates during the two-year contract period that most (in the U.S. at least) sign up for. More likely your updates will continue for longer. And most likely they will bring some benefit to your existing device. Now we switch to the Android world. Android updates are frequent, but upgrades for existing devices are limited. Adoption by existing phone users is rare. So Android users either don’t have an update available to them, don’t see a benefit of updating, or have actually had bad experiences with updates and don’t want to risk it again. So one world in which customers get, accept, and benefit from updates and another in which they don’t get, don’t accept, and don’t benefit from them. Now let’s explore the Microsoft Windows Phone ecosystem.
Windows Phone started out with Apple’s iPhone firmly in its sights. Microsoft had been succesful with the Windows Mobile business model until the iPhone introduction, which had (with its shift from business to consumer focus) just blown Windows Mobile out of the water. Not wanting to get into the phone hardware business itself Microsoft crafted a plan that was an OEM-centered variant of what Apple was doing. Consistency of user experience was key, a closed (and secure) app platform was key, etc. The promise that all devices would get all updates was key. For a variety of reasons this has not yet taken off, and apparently Microsoft is willing to break with Apple on the key point of upgrade strategy. Has Microsoft decided that instead of trying to emulate Apple it will now try to emulate Google (who themselves emulated Windows Mobile)? Is Windows Phone now supposed to be a better Android instead of a better IOS? Kowtow to the OEMs in hopes they will produce more leading edge Windows Phones? Kowtow even more to the carriers in hopes they will put greater focus on Windows Phone? Probably. Still try for less fragmentation than Android? Almost surely, though Windows Phone too will fragment. And it is the fragmentation of application platform that I am most concerned about.
Android has proven it can be successful without updating phones because users tend to split into two groups. The first is the true enthusiast, and they want not only the latest operating system but also the latest device. As a result they, at least grudgingly, are ok waiting to get both together. The second and larger population of Android phone owners buys something and is happy with what they have. They buy a Droid, or a Samsung Galaxy II, or whatever and don’t really differentiate it from the underlying OS. So a Galaxy II is a Galaxy II is a Galaxy II. “What version of Android am I running? I don’t know, does it matter?” and “I don’t even know where to get an update” are responses I’ve gotten from multiple Android phone owners. The only time an Android phone owner cares that they don’t have the latest version of the OS is when they find there is a new app they really want and it isn’t available for their phone. And that my friends is the Windows Phone problem I am worried about.
The Windows Phone 7.x library is at about 80,000 apps and growing fairly fast. It will be at 100,000 apps by the time Windows Phone 8 ships. Microsoft has committed that Windows Phone 7.5 apps will run on Windows Phone 8. But what about the other way around? What about apps that are written for Windows Phone 8? They are very unlikely to run on Windows Phone 7.5. Waiting for “Words with Friends”? It may come to Windows Phone 8 but never to Windows Phone 7.5. Pandora? Ditto. Once Windows Phone 8 ships the number of new apps being introduced for Windows Phone 7.5 will quickly drop to zero. If “Words with Friends” is important to you then you need to go to Windows Phone 8, but if there are no upgrades available, you just purchased a new Nokia Lumia, and you have a contract, you may be waiting 18+ months until you can afford to upgrade your device to run “Words with Friends”.
Do you really care that your phone won’t be upgradeable to Windows Phone 8? Not really. Do you care that the apps available for your phone, apps that perhaps you’ve been patiently waiting for, will never come to it? Most likely yes. And so for the remainder of your contract you are going to be simmering, perhaps boiling over when your long-awaited app candy hits the Windows Phone 8 marketplace but won’t run on Windows Phone 7.5. And every time it happens you are going to think “I should have just bought an iPhone”. And when your contract expires, you probably will.
My advice to potential Windows Phone buyers is don’t. At least don’t buy one now. Wait for Windows Phone 8 devices to arrive this fall. If you can’t wait then you have two choices. Make sure every app you could ever want is already available for Windows Phone 7.5, or buy an iPhone.