Windows Phone 7 Pits Microsoft Against Carriers and Smartphone Makers

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In pushing for a standard Windows Phone 7 experience across many devices and carriers, Microsoft is likely to run into problems. For as much as Microsoft wants its smartphone OS to look and act the same across many devices, carriers and hardware makers want to make their own marks, too. At stake is control of the user experience and, ultimately, of customers themselves.

Will the carriers and hardware manufacturers remain top dogs, or will the operating system vendors prevail? Put another way, will smartphones end up following the PC business model, where hardware manufacturers do not control user interfaces, or will they and carriers remain an important chokepoint between a smartphone OS and its users?

Businesses may have a special interest in the answer, given their historical role in defining PC industry practices. How much uniformity they may demand across the smartphones their workers use remains to be seen, though computer industry experience may provide a useful guide.

Near the conclusion of Monday's Windows Phone 7 introduction, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer responded to a question about how Microsoft will allow its Windows Phone 7 hardware partners to differentiate their products from one another. Ballmer's answer offered a bit of a Microsoft history lesson.

"As an old-timer, let me remind you of maybe the first time I heard this discussion is when we moved from DOS to Windows," Ballmer said. "There was consistency about Windows that we didn't have in DOS, and it turns out everybody wound up creating a bigger pool of opportunity through that transition."

"I think when we look back three, four, five years from now, we'll see great diversity and great innovation, and everybody will actually be quite pleased we could do that on top of a higher foundation instead of having everybody re-plumb the lower-level guts of the user interface," Ballmer added.

The first part of Ballmer's answer makes sense, with the caveat that Microsoft was ultimately the biggest winner, not the hardware companies or even other software developers. As for future innovation and diversity, you need only look around the Windows PC ecosystem and ask yourself, "How diverse is this, really?"

That potential shift in the ability to add value, away from manufacturers and carriers and toward the smartphone operating system providers explains why Microsoft may have to work hard to drive demand for its new smartphone OS by business and consumers.

It's carrier and manufacturer partners have reasons to be less than supportive. A unified Windows Phone 7 experience across all hardware and carriers seems to only work in Microsoft's--and its customers--best interest.

I add customers to this because of my belief that the wide availability of inexpensive, compatible hardware running a limited number of operating systems is the basis for personal computing's success. Smartphones, I believe, will eventually move to the same model, though it will take time.

Google, with its Android smartphone OS, shares some of Microsoft's predicament.

The company has perhaps erred by not better controlling Android. This has allowed various Android smartphones to be quite different, even while running the same operating system. While Google's partners may love this arrangement, Android today appears somewhat fractured.

With multiple releases in the market and its partners making changes to its OS, Google may need to exert more leadership if Android is to have a specific meaning--beyond chaos--to customers.

However, Google's releasing features for its Nexus One that are not available on other Android s, threatens what cohesion the Android community may have.

The problem of renegade carriers and hardware makers seems worse for Microsoft, however. Windows Phone 7 is such an immersive experience for customers, seeming to offer little that can be added or changed without diluting what Microsoft has worked hard to create.

Consumers may be better served by smartphones that share an operating system and user interface, allowing them to all work in the same manner, as personal computers generally do. This, however, could reduce smartphone makers and carriers into mere providers of commodity products and services, dramatically reducing their value-add and profit potential.

Ballmer's history lesson also left out an important timing element: The move from DOS to Windows occurred when the PC market was still in its infancy, unlike today's global wireless industry. Microsoft was also the clear leader in the PC market at the time, which is a position it does not hold in smartphones.

Microsoft's Andy Lees, who shared the stage with Ballmer, denied his company is trying to wrest control away from carriers and smartphone makers.

"What we want to do is that we make it so that user experience is extensible rather than it has to be replaced," Lees said.

"So, having consistency provides an overall better user experience, but we've made it very extensible. You can do a lot of different things to add a lot of different value, because we're a platform down below. And so that's how we allow extensibility without having the chaos of everybody trying to compete and change the same thing."

In such a world--which exists today in PCs--the OS vendor wins, customers win, developers win, but hardware manufacturers and carriers find their role greatly limited compared to what they enjoy today. It seems unlikely they will give up that influence--and the profits that go with it--without a fight.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

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