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8/23/2013
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Eric Zeman
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Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone

Progress sometimes freezes when troops must wait for a new CEO. Microsoft's Windows Phone team can't let this happen for two big reasons: Apple and Google.

Microsoft's long-time CEO Steve Ballmer announced Friday that he plans to retire within the next 12 months. That's good news for Microsoft, which needs a new pair of eyes overseeing the company's transformation. Microsoft needs to be sure, however, that it doesn't lose focus on its current products and projects, including Windows Phone 8. In fact, now is the time to push ahead even faster.

Microsoft's board of directors has formed a special committee to search for a new CEO. There's no word from the board yet if it will focus its search internally or externally. The news comes after Windows head Steven Sinofsky was forced out late last year and an internal reorganization was announced earlier this summer. Julie Larson-Green, a 20-year veteran with Microsoft, was put in charge of all hardware devices, games, music, and entertainment in July. Her position puts her in the center of Microsoft's plan to become a "devices and services" company moving forward. Windows Phone falls under her purview.

It's common for companies to put things on hold when they're undergoing leadership changes. Progress can freeze in anticipation of the changes often brought about when a new CEO comes on board. The Windows Phone team can't let this happen for two big reasons: Apple and Google.

[ What's Apple's strategy to combat Android? Read Apple's iPhone Battle Plan: 6 Factors. ]

Apple is prepared to release a brand-new version of iOS, the operating system behind its popular iPhone smartphone and iPad tablet, next month. The OS has been completely overhauled with a new look and includes hundreds of new features.

Similarly, Google is expected to reveal a new version of Android no later than October or November. Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie will mark another visual evolution of the platform as it continues to gain new features at a dizzying pace.

In contrast, Microsoft hasn't released a major new version of Windows Phone since October 2012. Windows Phone 8 arrived just in time for the holiday shopping season last year. WP8 was itself a significant overhaul of the company's mobile platform. It was rewritten from the ground up to share its base code with Windows 8 and Windows RT. That effort has paid off by making it easier for developers to target all three platforms at once. The only kink in the plan is that Windows 8 didn't get the reception Microsoft hoped. The company is rushing a new version of Windows to market to solve some of the biggest gripes around Win8. The problem? Windows Phone 8.1 won't arrive until sometime in 2014.

Microsoft had been on a nice yearly update schedule with Windows Phone, releasing Windows Phone 7.0 in fall 2010, Windows Phone 7.5 in fall 2011, and Windows Phone 8 in fall 2012. The yearly update cycle has become not only expected, but necessary. From the start, Windows Phone has lagged Android and iOS as far as features are concerned. The delay of Windows Phone 8.1's arrival by even a few months gives Apple and Google an advantage.

Microsoft can't let its CEO search push WP8.1's arrival back any further.

There are some specific things Microsoft needs to address with an updated version of Windows Phone. On the hardware side, it would be helpful if Windows Phone devices could support full HD displays. Currently WP8 is limited to three screen resolutions: 800 x 480, 1280 x 720, and 1280 x 768. Many of the best competing devices, such as the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, have full high-definition displays pushing 1920 x 1080 pixels.

Same goes for processor support. WP8 allows only for two-core processors, while many of the leading Android phones are jumping to four and in some cases eight cores. (Not that Windows Phone has much of a performance problem; it is very light on its feet.) This could help WP's gaming cred.

In terms of software, Windows Phone would benefit from more customization features. Android devices are highly customizable thanks to myriad home screens, widgets and launchers. Though users can arrange their Windows Phone Start screen however they wish, it's still fairly restrictive. Opening up some of the design elements and allowing for a more flexible approach could give Windows Phone more appeal to consumers.

Microsoft's hardware partners, including its biggest ally Nokia, have complained about the app situation. There are fewer than 200,000 apps available to Windows Phones, and Nokia believes more apps would help the platform. At this point it's not clear what Microsoft can do to entice developers to write for Windows Phone, other than boost its market share.

Microsoft is currently pushing out a nice, though minor, update to Windows Phone, referred to as GDR2. The GDR2 update improves the performance of Internet Explorer, Xbox Music and Skype, and it adds several apps. Details about the next update are mostly unknown.

At the end of the day, Microsoft absolutely cannot afford to slow down the pace of development for its Windows Phone platform.

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rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
8/27/2013 | 11:21:25 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
IBM gave up the desktop fight when it terminated OS/2. Then they sold their desktop hardware business. MS doesn't have to win the mobile space but they better stay relevant. If not, all they'll eventually have is Azure and other Internet services. If they are reduced to that, Windows will disappear from the enterprise and consumer space. The only place it will live is within Microsoft's cloud. That means all the proprietary stuff will no longer have any value and Microsoft will be reduced to low margin utility computing.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
8/26/2013 | 8:08:56 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
My thinking as well. If Microsoft can't become a leading mobile player, then it's done over the long haul. This is a market where it simply must succeed.
AustinIT
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AustinIT,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2013 | 5:51:17 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
I love the Windows Phone platform. My wife (tech luddite) now does as well. She just upgraded from a feature phone to Win Phone and took to it like a baby duck in a pond. She absolutely loves it.

Nokia has been pretty much left to do all the heavy lifting in making this platform a success. That's very unfortunate. Microsoft is slow in releasing software updates and the carriers are doing their best to slow down releases as well. Meanwhile, Apple enjoys once a year updates like clockwork without any hassles in getting them out. Android just obsoletes the platform so you don't have to really worry about upgrading.

Up until recently (and the jury is still out on the new upgrade plans), the smartphone sector has been all about locking you into a 2 year plan, scraping as much revenue as they can off of you and not giving much value back in return.
Palpatine
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Palpatine,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2013 | 1:15:25 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
He had no choice. MS was crumbling so fast due to Windows 8 debacle that it was inevitable. +20B$ in a single day is how much this is true.
Palpatine
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Palpatine,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2013 | 1:12:28 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
No surprise it never caught:
1) On desktop because of pervasively hiding desktop UI after tablet UI: at startup, by default, each time you open an app or file type associated with app, or need to go to the start-non-menu, or for other misc settings (even power off OMG!), so it is exceptionally ill suited and irritating as desktop platform.
Plus, calling desktop "legacy" does not help, developers feels threatened and fly away - just look how many Android, iOS and web based apps/services developers are active nowday, the same day the bald clown called officially desktop "legacy" they lost a whole generation of developers!
Plus, calling MS and hw company, another gift from the bald clown, does not help with OEM: now that MS is officially their competitor, investing in Android devices production and marketing rather than wintel one is the only possible answer, and that is what all OEM with larger revenues did - others are costing billions to MS to being subsidized to pretend wintel market was not dead the same day the bald clown released first VistaBob 8 beta!
Plus, betting the company (words of the bald clown, again) on Surface that is on all aspects (including price!) a keyboardless ultrabook was not a clever idea as the ultrabook marketing fad already failed the previous year.

2) On tablet because of many good reasons, e.g. it takes twice of ssd real estate than other tablet OS even in its "light" RT incarnation; it has the worst Store and no hope of catching up due to win32 competition with RT apps; it is inherently vulnerable to hundred thousands viruses that does not target BSD iOS foundations nor Linux Android foundations.
3) On phones because of, you know, compatibility of apps is not guaranteed (the worst conceivable MS error), that because the bald clown perceived pc and tablets one market, and phones a separate one, unlike any other successful competitor, limiting Phone 8 to small devices and RT on large tablets and completely losing the ability to release a REAL windows phone or phablet - the largest growing niche of products, by the way.

Final thought, the thing I like the most of Windows 8 is that it costed the career to the bald clown, and now MS have back the possibility to roll out a decent business plan and stay relevant: more choice is always better!
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
8/24/2013 | 8:25:02 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
You hit it on the head. Microsoft repeatedly takes the wrong angle when marketing to the general public (though I think Nokia's done a pretty good job marketing the newest hardware's photo capabilities). And in the smartphone markets, WP8 lacks the retail and OEM support to be more than an afterthought.

Windows Phone 8 is a good platform, and we'll see how much enthusiasm Microsoft can generate on its own with the big WP update that's supposed to be coming next year. But it's a tough space to compete in, and without more support from the extended ecosystem, Microsoft could continue to have a tough time. Nokia's made some progress, especially in emerging markets-- but we'll have to see if it can maintain that momentum, given that Apple is allegedly eyeing the budget market too, with the iPhone 5C, and that Android already owns it.
liverdonor
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liverdonor,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/24/2013 | 6:48:44 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
Gates announced he was retiring 2 years in advance, didn't seem to make much difference.
Well, but that was Bill. I suppose it may be different in Ballmer's case.
liverdonor
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liverdonor,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/24/2013 | 6:42:28 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
Misleading specification anyway. How many cores? More like, what are they being used for, and how well does their code use what's there?

If they were to count cores the same way in both phones, the Nokia Lumia 822 phone uses a Snapdragon S4 proc which has 2 Krait ARM v7 cores, plus a DSP core, plus the Adreno 225 or higher GPU (which has another 4 cores for graphics). So that's really 7 cores.

By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S4 phone uses an Exynos Octacore (big.LITTLE Coretex A15 - that's really 4 cores at normal power and another 4 at low-power mode), and a PowerVR 544MP3 GPU (that's three cores). Plus the radio DSP (that's another core). However, that's only the UMTS version. So, really, that's really only 8 cores at a time - depending on which mode the device is in. Trust me - those low-power A7 cores are truly wimpy. Not even sure if they're useful with Android OS - jury's still out on that one. If anyone out there has that data, please chime in.

Difference of one core, in real life, at normal-power-on mode. Oh, and btw - still not really an apples-to-apples (no iOS puns here!) comparison, because the Nokia phone is an LTE phone but the version of the S4 I've actually used is a UMTS phone so not really the same beast. The LTE version of the Galaxy will most likely have a Snapdragon proc, because Qualcomm is really the only game in town when it comes to LTE.

So, what's all this mean? Bottom line is in the functionality. Both phones are very quick, performance-wise. The Samsung is slightly quicker, but that's probably due to the extra core. However, the LTE phone (on Verizon) is much faster with web/network-centric operations. The Galaxy certainly has a sharper display (full-on 1080p HD, compared to the 480x800 Lumia). However, if you've used one (and I have, my wife's got one on T-Mobile), you see rather quickly that it's not really that much quicker - and with the number of gestures/operation generally higher in Android than in WinPhone, it seems to equal out (in my tests, anyway).

End result - it's amazing to me how the Android-based Galaxy is not really much faster than my Nokia (which was $100US cheaper). There's a lot of bells-and-whistles on the Galaxy (eye-tracking, all kinds of sensor majik), but most don't matter to me, as I'm primarily a business user. Oh, and btw - those A15 cores on the Galaxy burn battery. My wife can barely eke out 24 hours. I usually get more like 1.5 days before my battery dies.

From a usability standpoint, I get real M$FT Office (I can edit powerpoints!), a the ever-awesome Nokia Here nav suite (offline maps that are really good!) and a highly-capable camera (awesome low-light shots).

So, I don't have a zillion apps to choose from. Big deal. Purely looking at the function/$ ratio, I am very glad I got what I got. I think a lot of others (many former BBN folks) might agree with me.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
8/24/2013 | 5:22:22 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
I'm not convinced it was a good idea for Steve Ballmer to announce his retirement before a successor had been chosen. Now he's a lame duck, which will tend to encourage exactly the sort of paralysis our author warns against.
AustinIT
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AustinIT,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/24/2013 | 3:35:00 PM
re: Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone
Clearly what you suggest is not the right solution. If MS is not present in the mobile game then it could be game over in a few years. That's where the market is NOW. Mobile includes both phones, tablets, convertibles or a blend of both. Look at what Samsung is doing. And Lenovo too. MS ought to be courting both as a rock solid partners... big time.
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