|The Irish Times - Friday, February 17, 2012 |
Mango's a peach compared to Apple
With Windows Phone, Microsoft has come from a standing position to overtake its rivals. Given its recent history, that’s a surprise
THE EVIL empire. The Borg. These were phrases commonly used to describe Microsoft just a few years ago.
In 2004, European authorities had just found the company guilty of abusing its dominant position with Windows to freeze out competitors. The original fine of €497 million ultimately swelled to €1.68 billion by 2008 as the US company failed to comply with the sanctions imposed by Europe.
During the middle of the last decade, the world’s largest software company was being dogged by security breaches in its flagship products. This ultimately led to a five-year lag between Windows XP and Windows Vista – the biggest gap between Windows releases ever – and when Vista arrived, it was a resource hog which failed to live up to expectations.
In parallel with all this, Microsoft was an also-ran in internet services and mobile, two of the fastest-growing areas of technology. The company clearly felt Google, in particular, had come to dominate in areas which were rightfully Microsoft’s. Little wonder it tried to buy the next emerging web giant, Facebook, for $15 billion in 2007. When its overtures were rejected, it consoled itself instead with buying 2.6 per cent of the social network for $240 million – a move that now looks like one of its more prescient internet investments.
Over the period of those events, I had more than a couple of differences of opinion with Microsoft executives and their handlers as I covered what I believed were major errors of strategy by the company.
The Web 2.0 movement was ushering in a new era of openness and collaboration which I felt the Redmond giant was going to fail to capitalise on spectacularly. In fact, I never thought I’d type the following sentence.
Microsoft’s recent approach to the web and mobile displays a more fundamental understanding of how people are going to want to engage with ubiquitous web access than Google, Apple and Facebook, the current leaders in the space.
My evidence for this claim? Three weeks spent living with Nokia’s Lumia 800, which runs the latest version of Windows Phone 7, codenamed Mango.
Up to about a year ago, one of the biggest hassles of bringing a new smartphone back to the office was negotiating with our IT department so that I could get it to speak to my desktop PC. With my first iPhone, that meant getting iTunes installed on the PC. With my first Android phone, things were a little easier but I still had to export my Outlook contacts on a PC, upload them to Gmail and then wirelessly synch them. But contacts added to my PC would not be copied to my phone.
Heading back to the office with the Lumia in my pocket, I expected I’d have to copy my contacts and other data to Microsoft’s Live services to get them on my phone. Unlike Apple and Google, though, Microsoft’s software doesn’t appear to be a Trojan horse designed to get you using their services, whether that’s iTunes or Google Maps. Want to add LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Google accounts? Just input your username and password and Windows Phone does the rest.
These accounts don’t just live in discreet apps. The People feature shows me everyone with whom I am in contact on these networks mixed with the standard contact data you have on your phone.
Look up a contact and I have options to write on their Facebook wall or send them a Twitter message. Add an event to my diary and I can choose whether it’s stored on my corporate Outlook account, my Google calendar or on Windows Live.
And with its interface based on “live tiles”, Microsoft has shown the iPhone is not the be-all and end-all of interface design, while Google’s Android looks overly complex in comparison.
When it is introduced on PCs with the launch of Windows 8, possibly by the end of the year, it could quickly become ubiquitous.
There are other nice features, like the ability to access my Xbox Live account on my handset.
Windows Phone isn’t perfect, particularly when compared to the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It is however a leap ahead of the original iPhone or first Android models.
One start-up veteran reacted to my tweets in favour of Windows Phone saying it’s fine if you have limited Facebook or Twitter feeds, otherwise it just becomes information overload. His company is developing for Windows Phone, which he said is very easy compared to the Apple and Google systems, and “could be key to [its] success”.
Microsoft may have little choice but to open up to services from its rivals – it’s playing a game of catch-up in what was in danger of becoming a two-horse Apple versus Google race – but its decisions in regard to Windows Phone contrast positively with recent moves by its competitors.
Google was slammed when it overlaid a social networking element on its search results, a feature called Search Plus your World. The only problem was “your World” was your network on Google+, not Twitter, Facebook or any other popular network.
Facebook is notorious for only allowing limited amounts of its pages to be accessed by search engines and seems to be inexorably moving to recreate the wider internet behind its own firewalls.
Apple controls its entire “stack” – hardware, software and services – and has been reluctant to let competitors in. Look how long it took for Google’s native Gmail client to get included in the App Store or for Norwegian minnow Opera to get its browser listed.
The move to the cloud may be one of the most hyped trends ever in technology, but we are moving to an era of services that will be accessed from a range of devices.
With Windows Phone, Microsoft has come from a standing position to overtake its rivals, certainly in terms of openness. Given its recent history, that’s quite a surprise.