If Windows Phone 7 was a restaurant, you'd be right to wonder just when the proprietor plans to have its grand opening. What Microsoft has done so far is more like a soft opening, where you put out an "open for business" sign and welcome customers but don't go out of your way to pack the house.
As one authority in the bistro business defines the term: "The soft opening gives you a chance to work out all the logistical kinks, train the staff, tweak the menu, and really understand who you want to attract as a customer. This way you are in a position to hit a home run on the night of the grand opening."
Ah, yes. The grand opening. The point of the soft opening is to ensure success in the grand opening. Note to Microsoft: You can't stay below the radar forever and hope to build a business.
So when does Microsoft expect to have the grand opening for Windows Phone 7? The new platform has had a very low-key and very soft opening that has lasted for nearly a calendar quarter. It's been so soft that at least one hardware partner has begun grumbling about it publicly. James Choi, marketing strategy and planning team director of LG Electronics global, told Pocket-lint, "[F]rom a consumer point of view the visibility is less than we expected" and "we strongly feel that it has a strong potential even though the first push wasn’t what everyone expected.”
Part of the point of the soft opening for Windows Phone 7 is to work out technical and performance issues in the real world (see the iPhone 4 experience for an example of what happens if you don't do this). It gives the first wave of app developers a chance to fill the marketplace and work out bugs with early adopters, who are generally more technical and more forgiving of teething problems. There's also a chance to expand onto CDMA networks (like Verizon and Sprint in the U.S.) and introduce some new handsets.
The first Windows Phone 7 update should appear within a few weeks, adding essential features (like copy-paste support) that were missing in the first release. The expansion to Verizon's network is promised in the first half of this year. After those two milestones occur, will Microsoft ratchet up its Windows Phone 7 marketing and make a serious run at gaining some share?
I hope so, and they've already got a blueprint for how to do it, courtesy of the same hardware partners who are getting antsy now.
Most of the reactions I've read to the interview with LG's Choi zeroed in on that "less than we expected" quote, but I was more intrigued by this later comment about Windows Phone 7:
What we feel is that is absolutely perfect for a huge segment out there. What we feel is that some people believe that some operating systems, mainly Google, are extremely complicated for them. But Windows Phone 7 is very intuitive and easy to use.
That, in shorthand, is how Microsoft should be marketing Windows Phone 7. Position it and demo it directly against Android. Contrast the complexity and confusion of Android with the simplicity of a Windows Phone. The Android platform is ripe for the same sort of pointed comparisons that Apple used to such devastating effect in its "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" series of ads. The humorous possibilities are endless. "Oh, sorry, you can't do that because you're stuck on last year's flavor, Gingerbread. They're up to Tiramisu now and I just saw the roadmap for Zabaglione."
I think Choi is also correct that Windows Phone 7 is boring to the enthusiast community that has driven smartphone adoption so far. But the next big bump in the smartphone adoption curve will come as new waves of less technically savvy users arrive. Microsoft has actually designed a phone UI that is comforting for feature phone users, who don't want to scroll though four screenfuls of apps and folders to do stuff. Making a head-to-head comparison with Android (and to a lesser extent with iPhone and BlackBerry) is the way to peel off these new arrivals to the smartphone world and guide them into your camp.
I don't think Microsoft can afford the luxury of extending this soft opening until the end of the year. My colleague James Kendrick wonders aloud whether Microsoft can right this ship. I think there's still time, thanks mostly to the lock-in from carrier contracts, which spread the pool of available buyers out over two years.
From personal experience, I can testify that you need to get up close and personal with Windows Phone 7 to really appreciate it. That's especially true for the technically timid who have stuck with feature phones through the early years of the smartphone adoption curve. As those contracts expire, they bring a steady stream of curious people into stores to check out replacements. Microsoft needs to make sure they see Windows Phone products and get a convincing demo, especially if they're considering an Android device instead.
Ironically, the strategy it takes to succeed with this segment of the market is likely to be off-putting to the enthusiast/early adopter crowd that covers mobile devices closely today. For them, it's important for Microsoft to show momentum, with quarterly updates that show improvements in the technology.
Oh, and numbers. Microsoft needs to show steady increases in sales and share, especially in the quarter that ends the company's fiscal 2010 on June 30. And they can only generate those numbers if they actually hold a grand opening for Windows Phone 7.