What if you made all the right decisions from a technology and engineering standpoint, and then with one little marketing gaffe sunk an entire product line? Well, I worry that is exactly what Microsoft has done with Windows Phone. I have very mixed emotions about Microsoft not bringing my shiny new Nokia Lumia 900 into the full Windows Phone 8 world, but I have no qualms about saying that naming the release they are doing for it and its cousins, Windows Phone 7.8, is a huge mistake. They took an opportunity to come out smelling like a Rose and instead littered the landscape with the scent of rotting flesh. History may record that Windows Phone was sacrificed to the gods of “Engineering Political Correctness”, that a product’s name must somehow be tied to its kernel architecture.
Even Apple drops support for old hardware, they aren’t going to support my two-year old iPad with IOS 6 for example. And of course very few Android phones get upgrades to the latest version. The latest Android version, Ice Cream Sandwich, has only made it out to 7% of Android devices in the 7+ months it has been on the market. And older iPhones, like the 3GS, are getting IOS 6 but reportedly in very restricted form (i.e., without most of the new features). Even the iPhone 4 won’t be getting all the IOS 6 capabilities. But here is the interesting thing, Apple didn’t call the update for the 3GS IOS 5.6, it called it IOS 6! And so Apple fan-boys, which includes most technology writers, will sing Apple’s praises even as they trash Microsoft’s handling of Windows Phone 8.
Microsoft could have brought the full Windows Phone 8 to older devices, they chose not to. Why? If you are going for engineering efficiency then pouring a lot of resources into supporting the older chassis (single core, different boot model, etc.) seems like a poor use of resources. Maybe they found that they couldn’t get the performance on single core systems to match WP7/7.5, and so it would be a disservice to bring the NT kernel to them. In the long-term not supporting the older devices will reduce fragmentation and allow more rapid improvement of Windows Phone. In the short-term it is a potential disaster, and given Windows Phone’s precarious position it could be fatal. But good marketing could have gotten around most of this.
In an earlier post I postulated that Microsoft could split Windows Phone 8 into two editions, one for older and low-end devices and one for new and future devices. With Windows Phone 7.8 and 8 they are effectively doing this, but in the worst possible way. Let me repeat, Apple did not call it IOS 5.6 and IOS 6, they are just calling it IOS 6 even though older devices will not see most of the benefits of the new OS. Even though apps will be written for IOS 6 that can’t run on the older devices. Even though it is quite clear that this is the end of the line for those older devices. Microsoft could have done the same thing. It could have introduced Windows Phone 8 and had two sets of bits, one for older devices that would offer limited improvements and one for newer devices with all that Windows Phone 8 has to offer. Calling the later Windows Phone 8 and the former Windows Phone 7.8 just shows how poor Microsoft is at marketing compared to Apple.
You may be asking “isn’t this just a distinction without a difference”? Well, no. For the next few months Nokia and the other phone manufacturers are going to have to sell against a very public message that these phones are not getting Windows Phone 8. That could turn off customers tremendously. The message that they are getting something called Windows Phone 7.8 just sounds like “blah blah blah” after the “no Windows Phone 8” message. If they’d called the neutered version Windows Phone 8 then the details about it being a subset would be what sounds like “blah blah blah”. In other words, for all us techies it may indeed be a distinction without a difference but for both the typical customer and the device manufacturers the difference is huge. And it could be the difference between a smooth transition from Windows Phone 7.x to Windows Phone 8 and the “Osborne Effect” sinking Windows Phone completely. Actually Microsoft and Windows Phone probably survive this gaffe, it is Nokia who is most at risk. Having their ability to sell Windows Phones dry up for a quarter or two could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. That’s why they are working hard to spin Windows Phone 7.8 and a bunch of Nokia-specific enhancements as being such a good thing. But it didn’t have to be this way.
Microsoft, and it’s not alone in this, has an engineering driven need to name releases after the architecture that it embraces. If you switch the kernel, or otherwise re-architect the core of a product, then you give it a new major version number. This is thinking that goes back to the 1960s or 70s when the industry first started formalizing product names as versions with Major.Minor.Revision (or similar schemes) numbers. The concept that Windows Phone 8 could have two kernels is just heretical to engineers, they would love the 7.8 vs. 8 naming difference. And apparently they got what they wanted.
The problem at Microsoft is that they still haven’t figured out Marketing. Every now and then there are signs that they get it, but for the most part they don’t. In this case it may very well turn out that Engineering made all the right decisions on the product, but then Marketing completely botched the messaging. Or, Engineering over-ruled Marketing on the messaging. In either case, I think Microsoft “screwed the pooch” on this one.