Microsoft+Nokia -- Everyone wins in the user experience stakes

Summary:The real advantage to everyone in the Microsoft/Nokia deal is that the user experience will be better. That benefits everyone...

1024px-Bellfield_walled_garden
The outside of a walled garden. These are good.

Ecosystems are strange things. They're completely necessary for the user experience of post-PC computing (smartphones and tablets), but they're hard to define, relatively nebulous, and probably don't work in the way they think you do.

Start with Apple. They have the iTunes ecosystem that combines primarily music and video content (along with books), and of course apps. The basic assumption is that what Apple gets out of this is "lock-in" -- specifically that if someone has made a big enough investment in the Apple ecosystem they will never jump over to a competing one.

I think this assumption is wrong. If you go out there and look at the market, the number of people who care about what they actually have on a platform is actually a tiny number. Who has so many videos on iTunes, for example, that they wouldn't drop their iPhone for an Android smartphone? Note that I'm talking about smartphones in this instance -- someone with an investment in iTunes video may have an Apple TV, and/or an iPad to consume it in outside of the use case of watching movies on their phone.

It's the complexity of use cases around how people use devices that stops ecosystems from creating lock-in. Ecosystems are not about lock-in in that sense at all, although they do create scenarios where the user becomes disinclined to leave, which we'll come onto.

Walled gardens

If you think about Android -- or rather, if you think about Google Play, the ecosystem there is actually a little rough. The apps content is good, but the other types of content -- video, music, books, etc -- are always playing second fiddle to competitors. It's sufficiently weak that there can't be enough of a lock-in across their customer base.

On Microsoft's side the situation is even worse. App support on Windows Phone lags badly compared to iPhone and Android. The content side isn't really worth talking about compared to iTunes.

Nothing in any of these three ecosystems is going to stop most people from drifting to platform-to-platform as the whim arises. But there is significant value in what these ecosystems are doing, value that creates resistence -- we just need to look at them the other way up.

My preference is to think about ecosystems as "walled gardens". When you're inside, everything is happy, safe, and comfortable. Actual walled gardens were introduced in temperate climates to protect crops from wind and frost. They create little microclimates that's better for the crops, the gardeners, and ultimately the consumers.

Platform walled gardens do more or less the same thing. They create a safe, little, artificial universe that protects users from themselves.

That's not something I mean unkindly. The other way to look at that statement is that platform owners have a responsibility to help keep their users safe, from a combination of perspectives including safety (don't lose work), intimidation (don't get phished or attacked), or embarrassment. We only have to look back of the aggregated pain of twenty years of free-and-easy lovin' Windows to know that heavily locked down and curated systems are better in terms of the experience that they create.

Nokia

Whatever was or is happening with Nokia, the primary reason why I welcome Microsoft buying them is that it gives more control over their walled garden and that has to be good for users.

Case in point -- I'm hesitating about buying an iPhone 5s. I've had my Nexus 4 since January and I'm very attached to it. But the reason why I'm hesitating is that because I live my whole life through Google's services, and because the tie between stock Android Jelly Bean and those services is so good, I don't want to go back to a less good experience on iOS.

This is nothing about content lock-in -- I have no third-party Google Play content at all, and I use a few apps daily that are well supported on iOS. My lock-in is all about experience. It's safer and easier in my little Google walled garden.

What I'm expecting with Windows Phone being more "owned" by Microsoft end-to-end is a refinement of the experience. I already see Windows Phone fans tweet how when they take a photo it's just synced through to their Windows 8 desktop with SkyDrive. Removing the need to futz around on simple things like this is very post-PC.

I suspect the reality where Nokia was concerned was that Microsoft were converging on this point anyway. They would have been such an important partnership, the connection between the two firms so strong, that it would have been like having a single business anyway. (The other partners would have been rather out in the cold, but I'd have to assume no third-party will bother building Windows Phone devices now.)

What I think will happen is that Microsoft now owning the walled garden totally will give their smartphone strategy a real shot in the arm, simply by being more sympathetic to the user experience that customers of smartphones are demanding.

There's a reason why Windows Phone has better traction in the market than Surface and other Windows tablets -- it's this basic understanding of the experience users need to have which is present in Windows Phone, but not on the tablet side. Sidelining the other partners and Microsoft making Windows Phone entirely theirs end-to-end can only be a good thing.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Microsoft, Nokia

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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