Windows Phone's Secret Weapon: Customization
Despite coming from one of the world's most well-known tech companies, Microsoft, Windows Phone has a freakishly odd smartphone branding problem. From what I see out there, most consumers barely know what a Windows Phone is or how it works or why they might want one.
Business users tend to be more aware of it -- particularly the PC laptop-toting ones -- but they often end up choosing an Android smartphone or even an iPhone instead.
There are a lot of reasons Microsoft is woefully behind in smartphone market share, but now that it can align its software and services with slick hardware that it can control, thanks to its acquisition of Nokia, the company finally has a chance to create something meaningful for the mobile world.
So, from an unabashed Apple fan, why this? Why now?
Windows Phone's Path
I just read the regular-reader-friendly transcript from an informal "Ask Me Anything" Q&A with Reddit Windows Phone fans in which Joe Belfiore, Microsoft vice president and manager for Windows Phone, was surprisingly candid about the past, current and future state of Windows Phone development.
In one paragraph, I think he nailed the only path forward for Windows Phone to carve out a little place in the mobile world and find reasonable success against iOS and Android -- and it's not apps, apps, apps.
Why not apps? Because Microsoft is slowly getting better apps. Apple likes to talk big numbers -- there are more than 1 million apps in the Apple App Store -- but only a tiny percentage of those apps are being used by consumers in any relevant way. If Microsoft continues to invest in app creation and developer support, it'll get enough of the good apps so that buyers won't immediately dismiss a Windows Phone.
So what's the big deal?
It's All About Customization
The question posed on Reddit was, which feature would make people choose a Windows Phone over competing platforms?
Belfiore's answer: "Right now, it's not ONE FEATURE. It's the way the whole system is designed and what it's about. We think WP is the MOST PERSONAL SMARTPHONE -- and that a combo of features, starting with live tiles and now Cortana, makes it even more personal. This is kind of a mantra for the team -- we're serious about this. We're balancing a unique, attractive visual appearance with letting the user customize it a ton. We really want your phone to feel like your 'fingerprint' ... better than any other phone."
He's right on. In fact, he's so right on that I sat up straight in my chair when I read this, turned off my Homedics back massager, and read the passage again. Customization is more than a feature. It's almost a world view that Microsoft can embrace and use mercilessly in a wide variety of advertising programs.
Heck, can you imagine "I'm a Windows Phone and I'm an iPhone" video ads that spoof the awesome old "I'm a PC and I'm a Mac" ads? The role would be reversed here: The iPhone would be the stodgy, barely customizable dude, while the Windows Phone could be anyone cool -- or even just morph to fit a mood.
Suddenly, consumers could place an attribute on Windows Phone -- customization, and more to the point, themselves: me. If Microsoft can connect my identity with the phone I carry everywhere -- well, that would be a powerful accomplishment.
Right now, customization is about the exact opposite of what Apple is offering. As for Android, the competing manufacturers are so busy trying to carve out their own little piece of the pie -- and abide by Google's rules -- that their ability to communicate complicated issues like identity and customization with a fresh interface and experience is nigh impossible.
Heck, they started using Android in the first place because they didn't have any better ideas. So, yeah, while Android is technically massively more customizable than iOS, the reality is that it's far beyond the reach of most consumers -- and will continue to be due to Android's fractured existence. Just wait until Samsung bails in favor of managing its own destiny with the Tizen OS.
Meanwhile, back to Microsoft.
As for jealousy, I still can't imagine a day when a Windows Phone could dislodge me from my iPhone. Sure, I actually like the Live Tiles concept and respect that Microsoft brought something fresh to the mobile UI. I wish Siri were named Cortana and that Apple used her voice (and likeness) and could therefore evoke fond memories of epic Halo gaming. I wish I could customize the look, feel, and placement of both apps and information I frequently access.
I would be happy if Apple would simply let me instantly launch the Camera app by letting me push both the + and - volume buttons at the same time with both thumbs. Go ahead, hold your iPhone horizontal and press the + volume button with your left thumb and the - volume button with your right thumb. What happens? Nothing. But what if that action launched the built-in Camera app out of a sleeping iPhone?
Suddenly you're holding your iPhone in a perfect position to snap a quick photo or take video. No more fumbling with the Home button, potentially unlocking your iPhone with Touch ID, and sliding the little camera app icon over. But isn't that insecure? So sandbox the Camera app so that it only takes photos or video in this mode. Apple could conceivably figure this out and implement it, and it would be a great feature that a user could choose to enable or disable.
Let's take this idea a step farther: Would Apple ever . . . can you even imagine this . . . let you choose which photo app -- or any third-party app -- to launch with a customizable physical button press?
Would the DNA of Apple even let the company imagine such a customization idea? I have my doubts that it could happen any time soon.
So, while I hope Apple proves me wrong -- take the idea and implement it right away, please -- I know that this is the sort of customization idea that can be born from a team whose mantra is one of customization.
If Microsoft can truly elevate customization -- then illustrate and align customization with a better, more fulfilling smartphone experience -- the company has a chance to climb its way into second place in the mobile device wars.