I’ve been very skeptical of Microsoft’s ability to play a significant role in the exploding smartphone marketplace. Despite the company’s incredibly strong position in the enterprise, Windows Phone 7 has so far been promoted as a consumer offering, with snazzy UI tricks and lots of built-in social media, apps and photo-sharing goodness. But between Apple’s consumer-delighting platform at the high end and Android’s free OS licensing approach for the mass market, it’s hard to see a defensible spot in the consumer market for Redmond’s new mobile OS.
Lately, though, I’ve been seeing some bright spots for WP7, and I’m coming around to the idea that Microsoft may have a shot at picking up market share… as long as they’re willing to drop the consumer pose and run hard at their traditional core customer – enterprise CIOs.
My first indication on this came from Founders Co-op portfolio company Urban Airship. Urban Airship supports thousands of mobile developers and dozens of global brands with cross-platform infrastructure for mobile messaging, subscriptions and in-app transactions. They’re fanatical about customer support, so they’re really good at listening to and anticipating customer needs. A growing chorus of Urban Airship’s bigger customers have started asking about Windows Phone 7 and making plans to add it to their roster of supported platforms. Where big brands and successful developers go, others are sure to follow.
My next data point came from a recent exploration into Android’s prospects for enterprise success. After many conversations with mobile carrier CIOs, mobile security experts and enterprise technology buyers, it became clear that the Android platform has a long way to go before it will meet the needs of the more security-conscious enterprise buyer. I believe the problem will be solved – there are just too many consumers with Android devices and too many entrepreneurs working on different approaches to hardening the platform for it not to be – but it won’t happen overnight. The consensus opinion among interested parties in this space is that Microsoft currently has the best shot at addressing the needs of enterprise CIOs for a secure and tightly-integrated enterprise smartphone solution.
My most recent – and most personal – hint that WP7 has a shot came from my wife. After carrying – and absolutely hating – a Windows Phone 6 device for the past year, her employer upgraded her to a Windows Phone 7 device last week. The transformation in her attitude toward her mobile device has been amazing. Instead of cursing at it, she’s now showing it off in conversations, running demos for friends and generally acting like the rest of us that have owned functioning smartphones for the past few years. I don’t personally find the UI all that intuitive to use, but it is visually fun and satisfyingly social, and the company deserves high marks for their freshman effort at a real smartphone OS.
I still think Microsoft will fail if they try to beat Apple and Android at their own – very different – games. But if they can swallow their consumer pride and pivot back to the bedrock of Microsoft’s success – the enterprise CIO – they might actually have a hit on their hands. But they’d better do it quick…