The Elephant-Sized Underdog

Everyone loves the underdog right? Someone who is overlooked by all but a few, rises out of nowhere to take on giants. We don’t see it often, so maybe that’s why it garners so much of our attention.

Except, the underdog I’m writing about is Microsoft. Yes, the company that has practically a monopoly on the desktop for more than a decade, and they do a lot more than just selling copies of Windows and Office. Microsoft seems to be in almost every tech market out there, from home entertainment with the Xbox 360, online SaaS tools, online search, virtualization, servers, keyboards and mice, mobile OS and now tablets.

Microsoft might not seem like an underdog to most. When people all over the world fire up their Dell desktop or their HP laptop they expect to see that all-so-familiar Windows logo sitting right there on the start button. But Microsoft is indeed behind when it comes to their foray into mobile computing.

Old school

It might not surprise you to know that Microsoft has been part of the mobile computing market for years. In fact, not long ago, my wife had a Windows Mobile “smart phone” and I had a Pocket PC device in 2005. Now, while these devices boasted impressive claims, actually using it was a pretty frustrating experience. Between the flakiness of the OS and the frequent need to launch the task manager to force-quit applications, these weren’t what you would consider devices you could use to actually get work done. As a bonus, typically owners of Windows Mobile phones were encouraged to use a stylus and I don’t know about you, but having to whip out a stylus every time you needed to use a tiny on-screen keyboard was painful. None of this mattered though, as Microsoft had the world’s second most popular mobile operating system, behind RIM’s Blackberry OS, they really had no incentive to create something revolutionary. They thought they already had it covered.

So, where are we today?

Best Friends Forever

Last week Microsoft and Nokia released the most recent iteration of the Lumia phone lineup: two of the most beautifully styled, elegant looking phones I have seen from a non-Apple company. The devices, named Lumia 820 and 920 (both awful names), represent some of the excellent ideas woven into a portable computing device. Whereas Apple’s iPhone comes in two colors, Nokia takes advantage of that decision and allow customers to express themselves from selecting among up to 7 different exterior colors.

New school Lumia

The phones are well designed with unibody construction, have a sharp vivid screen, beautiful curves, a good camera and a simple hardware interface.

With all this praise over a phone, you’d think I’d love to buy one. I won’t though.

Why?

It comes back to the underdog of this post: Microsoft’s Metro UI (yes, Metro, I refuse to call it whatever flavor of the week they’re calling it now). Metro was innovative when it was launched, but now seems to have fallen flat at a platform. Sure, they’re going to launch the Lumia devices with the new Windows Phone 8, but that’s the problem… Windows Phone 8 doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest and it doesn’t help that little has changed with Metro’s functionality since it debuted. Maybe that’s because they painted themselves into a corner without realizing it; how much change can you bring to a bunch of square tiles?

So my main complaint is Windows Phone 8. Why? It comes down to a few core reasons:

  • Over the past decade, I’ve bought into two major ecosystems: iTunes and Google, both of which aren’t well supported on the Windows Mobile platform. Both of which are better supported on the iPhone or the Android platform.
  • Internet Explorer has been a royal pain in my web development ass for the past 10 years and I cannot forgive it for the damage it has bought upon the internet. That being said, it’s also not a very good browser compared to mobile Safari-based browsers.
  • The number of high-quality apps that I’ve become accustomed to in the iOS app store are simply not there on Windows Phone Marketplace. I’m not speaking of the number of apps available, but rather the number of useful apps I’ve found. Beautifully designed and useful apps like Prompt, Screens, Camera+, Flipboard, Path and Tweetbot are nowhere to be found. Yes, all have equivalents, but there’s a reason why I prefer the quality in my iOS apps over other similar apps.
  • Microsoft’s track record (so far) on maintaining OS updates on older hardware is a major concern. I understand that because of the insignificant marketshare that Windows Phone gives Microsoft the ability to start fresh with each OS update, but why would I want that? The iPhone 3GS was released in 2009 and will be receiving the latest update to iOS 6.0. That alone is a good investment for any consumer.
  • The overall style of apps within the OS must adhere to a particular look and feel. This is not a bad thing in terms of usability, but many Windows Mobile apps simply look too much alike and I sense this could get boring quickly. 1

Now the biggest fault I can give to Microsoft over their mobile offering is their choice of naming. Windows Mobile 8. Really? This is a phone, and it doesn’t even have the idea of desktop “windows”, so why are we attaching that name to it? Simply for marketing?

Microsoft is a huge company with a lot of really brilliant people working within its walls, and at the same time, it seems not to be run by designers or engineers, but by a marketing team that can’t decide if it wants to go left or right. This frustrates me as a consumer and the result has pushed me towards alternatives.

Microsoft could have been #1 with it’s Windows Mobile platform half a decade ago, but they ignored the iPhone as a fad that would only appeal to fan-boys and that negligence has left it to what it is today in the mobile arena: overlooked.

So should we root for this underdog? Well, yes. We need things like Windows Mobile 8 to keep other companies on their toes, but Microsoft needs to step up their game significantly. The recent announcement of their Surface tablet, made by Microsoft itself, is interesting, but it hasn’t been released and I still don’t know how much it will cost. Announcing something is “to be announced” causes your entire announcement to fall flat until your message is confused and lost. Not getting the message, they made the same mistake with the Nokia Lumia as well.

I’m not sure where I sit with Microsoft. I do think that they’ve earned the difficult path ahead due to their arrogance. At the same time, I want to see amazing things from this company, but after more than a decade of disappointment, they feel less relevant.

So you probably won’t find me rooting for this underdog, that is until they wake up and figure out how to be ten times better than their competitors. Until that time, they’re just another team that loses more matches than they win.


  1. Although this is debatable, and completely depends on the UI designer no matter what platform you’re designing for, it does make for a repetitive user experience. Here’s a great article on lessons learned from designing a Windows 8 application, which is similar to the Windows Phone experience: http://www.uxbooth.com/blog/lessons-learned-designing-a-windows-8-app/