I’ve been sitting here staring at WordPress trying to get going on a blog about the state of the Smartphone market. One paragraph in and I decide to change the approach and delete it. Start again and a different post comes to mind, this one. I think it is just a way to put off the one that requires more effort. Anyway, I think Microsoft needs to take a slightly different path with Windows Phone 7. It needs to open up the platform.
Microsoft started the WP7 project in an environment where the iPhone had exploded on the scene and was taking no prisoners. Although they knew Android was coming and would eventually be a threat, the immediate problem was responding to the need for a consumer-oriented smartphone where Apple was setting the parameters. Microsoft responded with an approach that was friendlier to OEMs and Carriers than the iPhone, but preserved much of the tight control of the experience that Apple had pioneered. Meanwhile Google took over Microsoft’s former (Windows and Windows Mobile) space of providing a general purpose platform that the OEMs could customize to their heart’s content.
While I like Microsoft’s approach the world is very different than it was at the start of the WP7 effort. OEMs and Carriers like the ability to more heavily customize the device experience. And while most end users recognize the value of having a locked down device (from higher reliability to far higher security), a significant minority prefers the ability to load any app of their choosing. Various reports that about 10% of iPhones are jailbroken attest to this. My guess is that a far higher percentage of iPhone users really want the ability to download applications that Apple won’t approve for the AppStore, but are unwilling to go as far as to jailbreak the device. I, for example, was one of those.
Microsoft would gain a huge amount of credibility by tweaking the Windows Phone offering to address the needs of these power users as well as OEMs/Carriers to take control. I have two proposals:
Proposal #1: Sell an official “jailbreak” for end users. Sell it for enough money that most people won’t buy it, but those who really want it won’t find it cost prohibitive. Of course such a mechanism already exists. Anyone can join the WP7 developer program and gain the ability to side-load apps, Trim this down to something an end-user would use, lower the cost, and you have a solution that would empower enthusiasts.
Proposal #2: Offer a version of WP7 to OEMs that is far more open than mainstream WP7. Let them deviate from the Chassis specifications. Let them make significant user experience changes. Make them pay enough extra for these capabilities that they will limit this to a subset of their devices aimed at specific user segments while maintaining the baseline WP7 experience for the majority of devices.
One interesting side-effect of these changes would be a significant increase in revenue to Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft could probably see from 2-5X the revenue from open devices than it sees from the equivalent number of closed devices.
More importantly, if Microsoft keeps things closed it will see Android dominate the market for enthusiasts and OEMs that, while happy to make a few Windows Phone devices, concentrate their best ideas and bulk of their efforts on Android. As for Apple, well that is better left for the post I really wanted to make.