Speed is the key: How Windows Phone jumped ahead of BlackBerry

Microsoft and BlackBerry took the same approach to evolving their smartphones strategies – but Microsoft was faster off the blocks and that matters.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

BlackBerry and Microsoft have faced the same challenges when trying to evolve their smartphone and tablet offerings, but the different results they've achieved shows the importance of acting decisively and fast: as Windows Phone inches forward, BlackBerry has said it is now considering "strategic options" which may involve the sale of the company.

A few years back both recognised they had to move off platforms that were being rapidly eclipsed by newer competition: Microsoft needed credible tablets and smartphones to round out its portfolio, while  BlackBerry needed to replace the operating system that made it the number one business smartphone and gave it huge consumer sales — at least before the iPhone and Android came along.

Both companies started work on new platforms to help them shift to a new generation of hardware. They both made similar decisions and Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10 (and Windows RT) share a lot of design principles: HTML5 is key, touch and gestures are the way forward and an interface designed for touch has to move away from the menus and toolbars and mouse habits of the past. The idea of an immersive experience for the user, with distractions kept to a minimum, was another concept in common.

And they're all based on a kernel from an operating system that started out on what we used to think of as a 'real computer' rather than a phone.

Microsoft wanted to have your Start screen light up with your photos and with updates from your friends and family (the Windows Phone People hub does a good job of this). BlackBerry built the social networking features of Gist right into its email and contacts so you could get straight from a friend's email to see what they've been up to online.

And beyond the interface, BlackBerry and Microsoft have similar ambitions for the scope and scale of their platforms. It's a shame that BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins has been so restrained talking about his vision of mobile computing, where your smartphone is at the heart of experiences shared with the processing power in your car or with other phones (using the ability of QNX to add and remove remote resources as they were on the same device). Imagine a way to project that onto a large screen on the wall or onto a tablet.

Compare that to the Microsoft Envisioning Center video of small, medium and large screens and Steven Sinofsky's vision at Build 2011: "We envision an OS that scales from small form factor keyboardless tablets all the way up to the high end." For all their differences, Microsoft and BlackBerry see the future in similar ways.

But Microsoft started earlier, getting Windows Phone on the market a lot faster by getting to a new OS in two stages, adding key principles such as GPU acceleration and a decent browser to its existing Windows CE platform, with a compelling new interface, keep adding extra features — and then swap out the guts for a new OS platform based on the Windows NT kernel.

The plan gave Microsoft a head start over BlackBerry, which had to go out and buy QNX to get the basis of a new operating system. The plan was for rapid development, with the OS getting tried out on a tablet and following on phones when the kinks were worked out. That took almost three years; the PlayBook was announced in October 2010, shipped in April 2011 and wasn't followed by a BlackBerry 10 handset until January 2013.

Windows Phone came out in November 2010 and Windows Phone 8 launched two years later (a couple of days after Windows RT and three months before the first BB10 phone).

Three years is about the time it takes to build a new OS (Windows 8 planning started five months before Windows 7 shipped, for example). but even with a great developer relations team keeping BlackBerry developers surprisingly happy while they waited for broadband 10, it's a very long time to wait when iOS and Android get new versions every year.

Five alternative futures for BlackBerry

Microsoft was able to move faster on smaller features too. Both companies saw computational photography as an ideal tool for smartphones; picking from multiple exposures to get the best version of your photo, for example. We saw both Nokia and BlackBerry demonstrate this; the Lens feature in the Windows Phone 8 camera let Nokia get this out quickly but BlackBerry had to wait for BB10 to ship in the first place.

That head start let Microsoft mop up customers who might have gone to BlackBerry 10.

You can also see it in market share in markets like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand where Windows Phone now has 20 percent of the market; Indonesia is a former BlackBerry stronghold where Android only passed BlackBerry's 50 percent market share in late 2012. In the UK, Windows Phone is growing almost as fast as BlackBerry is declining; Kantar says the Windows Phone 8.6 percent share of sales in Q2 2013 is a 4.1 percentage point increase over Q2 2012, with BlackBerry dropping 6.5 points to 4.1 percent. In France it's BlackBerry down 7.4 points, Windows Phone up 6.7 points to 9 percent. The 22.9 percentage points BlackBerry lost in Mexico went mostly to Android but Windows Phone gained 5.1 points for a 7 percent share of sales. Even in the US, where Windows Phone struggles the most, Windows Phone now has the 4 percent sales share that BlackBerry had in Q2 2012 and BlackBerry has fallen to a painful 1.1 percent.  

Overall, BlackBerry share is dropping — from 6.8 percent of worldwide sales  in Q1 2012 to 3 percent in Q1 2013 — while Windows Phone share is rising — from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent over the same year, even though BlackBerry shipped slightly more units. The only mobile OS losing share faster is Symbian, dropping from 8.5 percent to 0.6 percent.

It's an interesting thought experiment to consider how well Windows RT would have done if it had come out at the same time as the first Android tablets rather than just after the iPad Mini.

Microsoft is a much larger company than BlackBerry with lots of different revenue streams that give it the opportunity to keep pushing Windows RT (even discounting QNX's strong position in the automotive market), and at least one unique asset to drive sales on Windows 8 and RT: Office.

BlackBerry's closest equivalent is BBM, but again, bringing BBM to Android and iOS to make the BBM community more valuable was a good idea executed just too slowly to make a difference.

It's a shame; unlike HP who took far too long to ship a Palm OS device and only produced a disappointingly heavy and underpowered tablet, BlackBerry 10 is a great product that was worth waiting for.

It even had unprecedented support from the carriers; I've never heard of a mobile operator volunteering to keep its testing lab open over Christmas the way one UK carrier did for the Z10.

That begs the question of how any product can compete with iOS and Android unless it's backed by a company with the finances of a Microsoft that lets it keep plugging away to get a credible third place.

Still, if BlackBerry can go private or find a sympathetic buyer, that might give the company one more chance to prove they're not always too late to the party.

Further reading

Editorial standards