BlackBerry 6, Windows Phone 7: Will You Stand In Line?

Are Research In Motion and Microsoft chasing the glory of consumer acceptance and compromising their relative success in the enterprise? That's the risk of following Apple and Google, rather than leading with strength and innovation.
Second, there's the question of whether all of the focus and money being spent on the bling compromises the enterprise features that singlehandedly make BlackBerry the best-selling smart phone. Apple and Android handset makers (and Google itself) have a long, long way to go to ever catch up to what BlackBerry offers in centralized control, policy enforcement and security (beyond the security of the device itself).

Both companies give short shrift to those capabilities in their public comments, and it shows in the products. Consumers may not care, but CIOs do. Arguments abound that these devices are finding their way into the enterprise, and IT had better just get with the program; but where confidentiality, corporate policy, and regulations become factors, that just won't fly. RIM has even addressed usage scenarios that have personal BlackBerry devices coming into the enterprise; they've thought of everything.

Slideshow: Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Revealed
(click for larger image and for full photo gallery)

But painting buildings and subway stations takes capital, planning and thought. Making multi-touch a priority takes resources. Hiring sexy dancers to demo new phone features consumes focus. Getting copyrights to Black-Eyed Peas songs saps investment dollars. Apple has enterprise APIs in the hands of developers now (it isn't saying much about them, but sources reveal that there's some religion developing there); Google is touting its mobile device control with Google Apps. And companies like Good Technology and Fiberlink and Trust Digital (now part of McAfee) offer alternatives that mirror some of what BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) does for heterogenous mobile scenarios. None of these approaches is as developed or as integrated into the entire user experience, but if RIM slows down the innovation here to work on its sex appeal, it could open the door for others to catch up.

Windows Phone 7
If the reaction to videos and writings on the technical preview for Windows Phone 7 are any indication, there are some strong feelings on both sides of the debate. Many believe that Microsoft will fail yet again, while others think the vast empire finally got things right. Time will tell, as it always does with Microsoft. No cut and paste? They'll get to that eventually. No multitasking (except with Microsoft apps)? Surely in a future release (Windows Phone Vista anyone?).

Details and opinions are everywhere, but the true answer remains elusive: whether someone will stand in line for a Windows phone. Probably not--it could figure out how to handle mothers-in-law, fix Apple's antenna issue and come with a happy ending, and still consumers will be skeptical. Nevertheless, it appears to be a significant new product, and Microsoft has put a great deal of thought into its user experience. Demonstrations reveal a cleaner, far more functional phone OS. Early beta testers have been practically giddy, and admittedly surprised. What will matter is not whether it is just better than Windows Mobile 6.5, or whether it is at parity with the iPhone or Android, but whether Microsoft has mastered something fundamental and electrifying.

If they have, then eventually Windows Phone 7 will climb its way into the game, beyond the instant installed base of 90,000 Microsoft employees. Developers will follow (even though Microsoft says it has a long list of developers working on Phone 7 apps, some I've talked to say they will sit Windows Phone 7 out for now). Still, this is a big bet. If Microsoft gets it wrong, it will be nearly impossible to win back any credibility -- better to leave out a few key standard features and focus on something new.

Like Research In Motion, Microsoft is trying first for mass appeal, choosing to disturb a battle amongst today's mobile Goliaths. To wit: consumer-oriented web sites have already had their hands on the small pool of beta devices running Windows Phone 7; Microsoft said that Windows Phone 7 will not be managed by Systems Center Mobile Device Manager; and Aaron Woodman, Microsoft's Director of Consumer Experience for Mobile, said that Windows Phone 7's user experience was designed "so the brain doesn't even have to function."

What Microsoft may have gotten right is pegging the smartphone as the ultimate device for driving a social experience; a hub for people-oriented context, a unifying platform for status updates and other forms of micro-events tied to human activity. Today that is largely a consumer phenomenon, but that is bound to change. Whether that's enough to set Windows Phone 7 apart will require more experience, not to mention developers with apps that take advantage of it. Either way, Microsoft is starting at zero, with just its name and reputation, for better or worse.

It had better get used to standing in line.

A Word About HP/Palm
We'll see. (OK, that was two words.)

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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