Indeed, as the company prepares for what might be the most critical series of announcements in its 37-year history, the question isn't whether it's planning its own Windows Phone. Rather, it's what Microsoft hopes to gain by releasing it.
I should clarify at this point that the company hasn't actually disclosed that a Microsoft-branded smartphone is in the works. But there were numerous leaks of the phone's existence at the start of October. And then CEO Steve Ballmer's Oct. 9 letter to shareholders, which explained that the software conglomerate is transforming into a "devices and services" company, seemed to seal the deal--at least as far as the court of blogospheric opinion is concerned.
All the smartphone fuss hit while some PC vendors were still trying to digest the four-month-old news that Microsoft was readying Surface, its own family of tablets built around Windows RT, the iterant of Windows 8 for ARM processors. Many of the PC suppliers were also producing Windows RT tablets, and the thought that Microsoft would be competing with them was tough to swallow. The Surface tablets--as well as many of the other RT devices--will be available on Friday, which is also the first day that consumers can take home Windows 8-based PCs from Microsoft's hardware partners.
Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 devices, assuming they exist, similarly would compete with smartphones produced by Microsoft's hardware partners. So after decades of producing either peripherals that complement its partners' products or proprietary platforms in non-PC markets--such as Xbox and Zune--Microsoft's hardware portfolio soon will sport two devices that battle its partners' offerings. The burning question: Why has the company decided to cross that line?
The difference between the two approaches should be obvious, but for the sake of completeness: Apple retains total control of the hardware that showcases its platforms, and produces the only systems available. Google, on the other hand, maintains a stable of hardware partners even though it does occasionally develop own-brand devices or work with a single hardware vendor to produce a shining-star device for the latest Android spin.
Certainly, there are advantages to both tacks--as well as pitfalls. Producing the only hardware for Windows Phone would afford Microsoft much finer control over how the hardware works with the OS. This is particularly valuable these days, as the company is speeding up not only the pace of platform development, but also how the platforms coexist. And as I've written before, Apple, Google and Microsoft all are assembling competing content and services to lure consumers to their respective tablet and phone platforms--and Apple's closed approach affords the company more opportunities to tie it all together. That would benefit Microsoft, as well. In fact, I've been speculating that Google likewise may be motivated to migrate to the Apple model.
For the time being, at least, Google's model of selectively producing best-of-breed devices should serve Microsoft. Home-spun devices can act as models for how to exploit new features, which in turn can light a fire under partners' design teams. If the fire lighting isn't managed correctly, though, it could send the hardware partners packing in search of another platform to serve.
Standing here at the doorway of the inaugural Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 device sales, hardware vendors are trying to decipher exactly what it is that a "devices and services" company does, and whether it makes sense for them to hang around. That won't hurt sales in the short term, though a partner exodus could upset platform development going forward. Unless, of course, going it alone is exactly what Microsoft wants to do.