Microsoft's new smart phone platform, Windows Phone 7, actually has a fighting chance. As good looking as the phone platform is, I didn't believe that until yesterday, when Microsoft revealed the phone's Xbox strategy. And trust me, this is about more than games.
Microsoft is the supremo underdog here. There are iPhone and Android, two adversaries battling for exactly the same customers that Microsoft is targeting, while a third, BlackBerry, corrals all the smart phone business clients who used to bear Microsoft's brand. Lately, Microsoft has a bigger track record of screwing things up (Vista, Zune, Kin) than succeeding, so there's no guarantee that this platform will ever get off the ground. Still, a comeback isn't impossible.
In consumer electronics, companies like Panasonic and Samsung often enter categories already dominated by multiple players, and gradually expand their own market share, elbowing out competition. But they do it by keeping prices aggressive and products plentiful in product lines where customers can't really see many differences, like digital cameras and TVs. The smart phone business is not about miles of store shelves filled with generic products, though. It's more like a video game console war, where the products are very different, even embodying different personalities. People — fans — split off into different camps and generally stay put.
But it's precisely because this looks like a console war that Xbox, I mean Windows Phone 7, has a chance of success.
(I'll take a moment to state what should be obvious, that although msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal, my opinion isn't influenced by that in any way. For what it's worth, I am an iPhone user and a big fan of Android's most recent OS and beefed-up phones.)
From the Window Phone 7 unveiling, Microsoft has said that the platform would have an Xbox Live section, which not only hosts games but keeps track of your gamerscore points and 3-D avatar. But Monday night Microsoft showed that, at the phone's launch, there would be more than 50 games from prominent developers — with more on the way through the holiday season.
It may not seem surprising to you that there's a "Halo" title for Microsoft's newest handheld gaming device, but anyone who's watched Microsoft as long as I have knows that nothing is guaranteed when different divisions of the company have to work together. The good news is, it sounds like the games division is totally on board, and ready to fight for this as if it were a console: Produce mobile versions of Xbox favorites while sweet-talking the owners of other major console franchises to get with the program.
The real question is whether the legions of Xbox Live users (25 million and counting) will view the Xbox phone, I mean, Windows Phone 7 phone as a boon to their gamer lives. Microsoft is counting on it.
Having a strong games program isn't just good for gamers, it's good for anyone who wants to see high-quality apps. This is because they set the bar for paid content. Android is a great platform for social media apps and other Internet diversions, precisely because those developers are motivated more by community development, and less by a per-app paycheck. The iPhone will consistently beat Android in gaming, rich book apps and kids' edutainment, because Apple App Store denizens are OK with paying for content, anywhere from 99 cents to $14.99. If the framework for shopping for (and buying) games is good enough, other great apps will turn up. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
Paid apps also have a secondary benefit for the phone platform: The more you paid in, the less apt you are to switch. If Android users don't buy many apps, and most of their favorites are available on iPhone and Windows Phone 7 — I'm all but certain this will be the case — it won't cost much to switch. At least, not unless they're still under contract, and have to pay $300 to get out of it.
What's interesting about Windows Phone 7 is that the phones will be made by many of the same companies that currently produce Android phones. While there will be little flourishes that one phone or the other has, there may not be much variation — inside and out — between an HTC phone running Android and one running Windows Phone 7.
The iPhone will likely continue to be a stylistic leader (albeit occasionally at the cost of performance). But the preponderance of hardware partners means that Windows Phone 7 will be available in multiple styles (touchscreen only, slider keyboard, big screen, super thin) on multiple carriers. Lord knows, even an iPhone on Verizon — which will probably happen in January — will look more or less identical to an iPhone on AT&T.
The advantage that Android currently exploits to beat iPhone in sales market share is one that Apple itself gave to Android: By creating a seductive product and keeping it on AT&T, Apple built the Android market, and wrapped it with a pretty pink bow.
While Android is a terrific OS, we may find that its allure is as the "other." People already bored with Android (or afraid of Google) may want to try another "other" when it hits stores this fall. Even if the iPhone shows up at Verizon, there are still two carriers, T-Mobile and Sprint, representing about 20 percent of U.S. phone users, whose customers might yearn for a Windows Phone 7 option.
But then again...
I am trying to understand a world in which Windows Phone 7 might thrive, but every time I do, I get stuck on the name: Windows Phone 7. I could have abbreviated to WP7, but I wanted you to feel it too. There are five things very wrong with the name:
1) The phone doesn't run Windows.
2) Windows is not an alluring brand.
3) The "7" makes it easily confused with Windows 7.
4) It's supposed to be first in a new line, not 7th in a series of flops (right?).
5) It's a flippin' mouthful.
Then again, it could've been called ZunePhone. Again, I'm trying to figure out how this phone could succeed, but even if all of these factors work out in its favor, Microsoft could still screw this up.
Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman. Feel free to defend the honor of the Windows name.