Last week, you may have read the harrowing tale of how my brand-new Google Pixel 6 turned out to be a late-runner for Tech Turkey of the Year. I got stuck with a lemon phone with defective flash storage -- and I would have returned it if I had determined that the hardware was problematic immediately after I got it.
I may have considered having the Pixel 6 replaced within warranty, outside its return window, as I still need a main Android 12 testing device. But my support experience with Google has been so bad that after I realized the device was defective the day I received it, I insisted on having my money refunded and escalated it as a dispute to my credit card company.
Since that article was published, Google has agreed to refund my purchase, but I think that only happened because I wrote an article about my experience. Regardless, until I see vast improvements in how they handle support, I'm finished with Google's mobile devices after over a decade of using them, since the very first Nexus One phone.
I think the company's customer support is now more atrocious than ever -- I've had better experiences recently from Italian espresso machine companies where English isn't their first language.
Bad luck or bad support culture?
Many others, such as our own Ed Bott and my Jason Squared co-host Jason Cipriani, have told me they love their new Pixel 6 phones, that they work fine, and I was "unlucky." I'm sure the Pixel 6 will be a good phone for many folks, assuming my own experience turns out to be an isolated one. But it does call into question the importance and value of support when you purchase a mobile device or any product at this level of technical sophistication and complexity.
To get good tech support as a consumer, you need to be buying products from a company that is used to directly interfacing with its customers. However, Google is a company that habitually abstracts its users from its developers.
The purist-Android-experience Pixels will never be more than niche devices targeted primarily to Android developers and Google enthusiasts; they are not for most end-users. Google should have outsourced the Pixel experience to its OEM partners as a specialized SKU instead of trying to support it in-house.
Developers can tolerate many things that will enrage consumers, such as days between tech support responses when a product blows up or having to pore through arcane documentation. End-users, not so much.
If not Google, then who else?
Conversely, Apple has great support because it has retail stores and has always been a customer-focused and end-user-focused company.
In many respects, so is Microsoft.
But Microsoft has not succeeded with its smartphones. Windows Phone was a debacle because, well, it wasn't Android or iOS, and there were other deficiencies in the company's culture that, frankly, are no longer relevant in the ten years after the failed mobile platform launched. Under CEO Satya Nadella, and with a strong commitment to open source, the company has embraced and succeeded with multi-platform software development, such as for Android and iOS. Their apps continue to dominate the top app lists for business productivity on both app stores.
The Android software stack on the Duo that provides enhanced Windows and Microsoft services integration is good. The problem is that the dual-screen setup on that particular device doesn't seem to address a large percentage of common consumer use-cases: It's a very niche product.
Here's the thing -- Microsoft needs to stop obsessing about what niche and radically different things it can do with the hardware and software and instead focus on user experience and support. Why not produce a Surface "Solo", a mainstream Android phone for Windows users?
We need a viable third mobile device company behind Apple and Samsung to provide solid technical support for its users. I don't think Google is that company; I believe their heritage as an advertising-driven and internet services firm makes that incompatible with their culture.
Microsoft needs to step up
I think that the third company needs to be Microsoft, but I don't think they are necessarily that company today. While their partner and enterprise support for Surface laptops and convertibles are pretty good, their consumer support, while not Google-level awful, isn't up to the same response levels and overall customer satisfaction.
They no longer have retail locations and would need to beef up direct sales support if they wanted to go "big" with a mass-market Surface smartphone. They would need to partner with Best Buy/Geek Squad or a similar retail-facing company (or a partner like Amazon) or do a store-within-store carrier retail presence to pull that off at scale.
It's a heavy lift, but I don't think it's impossible to do -- Panos Panay and his team are up to the task. Support will be of increasing importance as Microsoft increases its mobile device presence.
These consumer-focused issues will become even more apparent when the Intel architecture fades into a minority position in our industry. This increased focus on end-user support becomes more critical as Arm-based SoCs and lighter and more power-efficient computing devices (such as Surface Pro X) become the majority on the client-side of the IT equation.
It's an equation that is becoming more cloud-focused than ever.
So let's assume Microsoft can beef up its support infrastructure to handle consumer devices at scale. It certainly knows how to do it on the Xbox side, so we know that some learnings can be applied there.
What do I want out of a Microsoft mass-market smartphone? A sharp 6.7" 120Hz display, fast SoC, generous storage (ideally microSD expandable), ample RAM, solid cameras, industry-leading connectivity (5G/WiFi 6E), robust security and privacy controls, with three supported versions of Android upgrades over the life of the device, minimum. A durable smartphone with an excellent battery life that can handle the rigors of day-to-day use, not a plastic piece of junk. With Microsoft's Android software stack and 365 cloud services turned on and included out of the box.
But most importantly, human beings I can call or contact via email or a web support system that will actually talk to me and respond relatively quickly to inquiries if I have a support issue.
Can Microsoft become the third significant mobile device "estate" and provide its end-users a solid support experience? Talk Back and Let Me Know.