To say Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform has failed to take off in the mobile OS market would be a huge understatement. In a year and a half since its debut, the Windows Phone platform has still not yet managed to achieve greater than a 5% adoption. Aside from an exclusivity deal with Nokia, Microsoft’s partners are growing increasingly wary of developing devices for a less-than-successful platform instead of focusing on the runaway Android freight train.
According to a Digitimes rumor, Microsoft is being urged by Taiwanese handset makers to break from its stance on a unified Windows Phone experience and provide handset makers more flexibility in the Windows Phone platform. This model has been wildly successful on Google’s Android OS, which allows handset makers to develop custom skins that sit atop the core Android platform to deliver a customized user experience. The handset makers arguments follow this same trajectory, with companies insisting on being able to differentiate their products from the other Windows Phone devices on the table.
Digitimes fails to name any of the companies who are pushing for such a move from Microsoft, or any proof that requests are actually being made of Microsoft, but the report brings up a fairly important question regardless. When you look at the smartphone OS industry as it exists today, the three other major players are Apple, Google, and RIM.
Apple and RIM follow largely the same model; both companies play both the role of software and hardware maker for their iOS and Blackberry platforms. This provides these companies with a large amount of control over all aspects of the process and essentially makes the software the differentiating factor. Apple currently only makes one form factor, and if you want iOS as your software, you’ll buy it and like it. RIM offers their customers a bit more choice when it comes to form factor, and the fact that RIM provides hard keyboards in almost all instances has arguably been their differentiating factor. If you want a solid keyboard on your phone, you get a Blackberry (though that sentiment is slowly changing and RIM is focusing on software once more in Blackberry 10).
Google, on the other hand, only plays the software game. Software is definitely the differentiating factor here, and Google allows manufacturers to build as many different device form factors as they like, and also puts up with these handset makers building custom UI skins that alter the core Android UI experience. Since there are literally hundreds of black-slab Android devices out there for customers to choose from, Android handset makers count on these custom UI skins as a key differentiating factor to woo customers away from the competition. When Google chooses to release a developer reference or pure Google experience device, they partner with one of these handset makers and disallows the custom UI.
Microsoft is clearly much more like Google than they are Apple or RIM. Microsoft is not in the hardware business, and expresses no desire to enter into that market. Instead, they count on companies such as Nokia, Samsung, and HTC to build Windows Phone devices, but rules over the software with an iron fist. While they once allowed custom skins in the days of Windows Mobile, Microsoft is averse to letting handset makers alter their precious Windows Phone platform. Meanwhile, Google and Apple continue to achieve monumental levels of success, with these platforms currently found in about 80% of consumer’s pockets as RIM and Microsoft continue to struggle to find relevance.
Perhaps, then, the time may be now for Microsoft to re-think their strategy a bit, and consider allowing handset makers to build upon the core Windows Phone platform. This model has helped Android become the best-selling mobile OS in the world, though not without bringing up the ugly fragmentation issue. One thing is clear, though: unless Microsoft does something drastic with the upcoming Windows Phone 8 release, I think they’ll be hard-pressed to find handset makers that want to develop devices for Windows Phone.