Microsoft quietly downgraded the hardware requirements for its Windows Phone 7 operating system in late September to make optional the inclusion of cameras in mobiles using the operating system.
The move came just prior to the arrival on the market of phones running the latest version of the OS, WinPho 7.5 or "Mango." During the first iteration of the OS, Microsoft kept a hard line on what it wanted to see in WP7 phones, but now it seems to be backing off its standards.
While high standards may not be popular with some phone makers, they do set the floor for a device so consumers can get a consistent experience across a platform. If you make your own hardware, as Apple does, that's not a problem. But if you only make the software for a device, as Microsoft does with WP7 or Google does with Android, ensuring that kind of consistent experience can be problematic.
When Windows Phone 7 was introduced, it was apparent that Microsoft was going to take a harder line on what it would allow hardware makers to call a WP7 phone than it did with its previous smartphone OS, Windows Mobile. That was seen by some observers as a good thing -- something that would allow WP7 to avoid the pitfalls that have beset Google's Android since its introduction.
You see, when a bunch of hardware makers compete for market share and they're all using the same operating system software, they're inclined to do things to differentiate their product from rivals. That usually means the user experience takes a back seat to crappy code that makes apps crash, drain battery life, and generally degrade a consumer's experience with a phone.
That's not to say that Google isn't aware of what's being done with Android and has its own ways of getting what it wants from its hardware partners. While Google denies it, there's evidence that it's perfectly willing to give partners who play ball with it a leg up on those who don't.
In court papers filed in its lawsuit with Oracle, for example, it states that in order to drive the Android standard it will "Give early access to the software to partners who build and distribute devices to our specification. They get a non-contractual time to market advantage and in return they align to our standard."
Why is Microsoft apparently backing off its standard to require cameras on the front and back of WP7 phones? It allows phone makers to produce mobiles better suited for government and corporate environments concerned about security.
Most of all, though, it allows handset makers to make low-cost smartphones. That certainly would be appealing to Microsoft's hardware partners, who want to hawk smartphones in new and developing markets that are sensitive to price.
That's a concern of all smartphone makers who want to push the handsets around the world, including Apple, which is why Apple watchers say a cheaper iPhone is inevitable.
However, it seems that Apple's strategy is not to downgrade its hardware, but to offer older models at lowers prices. That strategy maintains the integrity of product's brand without cheapening the product. It's a strategy Microsoft should think about before the WP7 brand becomes tarnished by crippled handsets that don't deliver on the experience that the company wants its WP7 consumers to have.