5 Things Microsoft Must Do to Save Windows Phone

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Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr

At this point, it's obvious Windows Phone is in trouble. The platform remains a distant third in almost every market behind Android handsets and the iPhone. It remains far behind behind both platforms in terms of available apps. Its market share contracted last quarter and many people don't even know the platform is out there. About the only good news for Windows Phone is that seems to be holding steady ahead of BlackBerry.

All of that is somewhat of a shame because with this year's Windows Phone 8.1 update, the platform truly became a really viable consumer and business option -- and it offers a unique and somewhat fresher user experience than Android and iOS.

While Windows Phone may follow in the footsteps of other Microsoft flops like the Zune, there are steps that Microsoft can take to change its destiny. Most of them are about positioning and promoting Windows Phone as a platform more than solving technical challenges. Here are five of them.

Stop comparing it to the iPhone!

Microsoft's latest Windows Phone ad features its own virtual assistant Cortana, but the ad tries to position Cortana as a much better version of Siri. Microsoft is hardly the only company to do this. Amazon compared its Kindle Fire HDX to the iPad Air last year and Samsung has made an art out of poking fun at not just the iPhone, but also iPhone users. They were arguably more successful for three reasons:

  • They were pitching products that people were already aware of -- the Kindle brand has been around since before the iPad and Samsung's Galaxy devices are among the most recognized Android devices on the planet.
  • They were also already successful products or from successful product families.
  • They didn't actually highlight or demonstrate specific iOS features.

Microsoft doesn't have either of those first two luxuries going for it. Windows Phone is unknown and struggling. By comparing Cortana to Siri, Microsoft actually reinforced a well known iPhone feature. The intent was clearly to say Windows Phone is better than an iPhone, but the effect for anyone not already familiar with Windows Phone was  more like "Oh. Microsoft has a phone out and it looks like it has something like Siri on it."

Samsung has occasionally come close to doing this in some of its "iPhone doesn't have this" style ads, particularly the ones targeting lines of fans outside Apple stores. There's a subtle but important difference, however. Samsung typically lists features that its devices offer that iOS devices don't, or that Apple has only recently added to iOS. That's very different than comparing features side by side.

Instead of reminding viewers of the iPhone or popular Android phones, Microsoft needs to develop ads that sell the value of Windows Phone in its own right. Otherwise Microsoft is portraying Windows Phone as an "also ran" or "me too" platform that is copying features and playing catch up to iOS and Android.

Highlight unique features and experiences

Most people don't buy devices based on specs. They buy based on features that create unique experiences and offer tangible value. The only real exceptions are specs that are features in and of themselves, like screen size and quality, storage capacity, camera quality, or battery life.

Kindle Fire buyers, for example, know that they can search and buy ebooks, music, and movies easily and have a good experience reading, listening, or watching them. Galaxy Note buyers know that they'll get a device that works well as a phone and tablet and that can run apps side-by-side at the same time.

Apple, Samsung, and Google are experts at communicating this and Apple's Emmy winning "Misunderstood" ad from last year is a great example of showing not just the features of a device or the apps available for it, but the things that real people can do with them.

Microsoft needs to deliver similar clear and compelling user experiences that are unique to Windows Phone and demonstrate those experiences to potential customers.

One of the great features about Windows Phone, for example, is that it incorporates social networks incredibly well, allowing a seamless experience of the people in your life without having to check multiple apps in the process. Windows Phone 8.1 added similar integration for non-Microsoft cloud services, including Apple's iCloud, making it a great platform for a parent that needs to share and sync things like calendars easily with kids that of iPads, Android phones, Macs, PCs, and so on -- if Microsoft doesn't illustrate that effectively in a real world "show don't tell" kind of way, however, then it almost doesn't matter that the potential is there.

Product placement

One of the most amazing things about Apple products is that they are everywhere in movies and TV shows. Look at CBS's Big Bang Theory, a show where virtually every main character is more than a little geeky and nerdish. If there was ever a show where you'd expect to see Android phones on display, it's this one and yet every person carries an iPhone. The show even dedicated an episode to Siri, in which one character fell in love with Apple's virtual assistant, not long after the iPhone 4S launch. That episode probably did more than any Apple ad or marketing material to introduce and promote Siri.

The only place I can even remember seeing Windows Phone featured like this was an episode of Showtime's Nurse Jackie, which also featured at least three or four iPhones, all of which got more screen time.

Granted, Apple has long been good at getting its products in the minds of the public like this -- even in the days when Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 90s, Macs featured prominently on TV (Jerry Seinfeld's apartment, Carrie's laptop on Sex in the City) and in movies (in the 1996 flick Independence Day, a Mac laptop literally saves the world) -- but Microsoft has also managed to pull out this trick with several of its products, including the Xbox and the Surface, which will be seen on the sidelines of every NFL game this season. If you need to build mindshare, product placement is a big way to do it.

Promote it as a best-of-breed option for low-end phones

When I decided to spend time with Windows 8.1 earlier this year, I wanted to get an idea how it ran on inexpensive devices rather than on a iPhone or top-of-the-line Android phone. I picked the cheapest Windows Phone available in the U.S. -- the $99 at the time (no contract/subsidy, pre-paid) Lumia 520. Aside from being the cheapest Windows Phone option, this price point is pretty much in the bargain basement for smartphones of all sorts.

I figured I wouldn't get a great experience. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Although some device-specific features (screen, camera, etc.) weren't great, they weren't bad for a $99 phone (which is now available from some pre-paid carriers for as little as $49). More important, the then-new Windows Phone 8.1 ran surprisingly smoothly. There really wasn't much in terms of the overall performance of the OS or apps to complain about.

It was a startling contrast to some of the Android handsets I've tried at that price point. This phone was also capable of running the latest version of the platform, which can't be said of most inexpensive Android phones.

If there's one thing that Microsoft needs to highlight about Windows Phone, this is it. The low-end smartphone market is huge. There are a lot of folks that want a quality experience but can't afford top-of-the-line devices or who are relegated to the pre-paid market because of credit of financial troubles, meaning they need to pay the full cost of the phone up front. A new iPhone may be out of reach, but low-cost Windows Phone handsets aren't and they offer great value.

The low-end market is also key in the developing world, which is where most of the smartphone growth is going to be in the next few years. Google is starting to stake a claim in this market with its Android One initiative and players generally outside the U.S. and western markets like Mozilla's Firefox OS vying for dominance. Microsoft has a major opportunity there with Windows Phone. (I also recently tested one of ZTE's second generation Firefox Phones with the latest Firefox OS and I would take the Lumia 520 over it any day.)

This is an area where Microsoft can compete and compete well. Here, it isn't up against Apple or the newest top-of-the-line Android devices. And it's an area where there is, simply put, a number of cheap devices that feel... well cheap.

Build the channel and build it right

Many smartphone buyers walk into a carrier's store or a big box retailer's smartphone section with very little idea what to look for in a phone. Many of these folks rely on the advice and suggestions from the sales people working there when picking a phone. Many people even rely on those workers to transfer data from their old phone to a new one.

Even if Windows Phone is a solid option for a customer -- even if a customer asks about Windows Phone -- sales directives, training, and personal preference will likely lead a sales person to steer that customer to an iPhone or Android phone.

This is a difficult challenge for Microsoft because all the promotion of the platform can go out the window (no pun intended) if carriers and retailers dismiss the platform. There are approaches that Microsoft can take to mitigate that problem.

  • Use its clout in the PC industry to force non-carrier retailers to display Windows Phone more prominently.
  • Offer training and incentives to carriers and retailers to promote accurate information on Windows Phone options.
  • Pay direct bonuses to carrier employees that sell Windows Phone devices (an approach Samsung employed to combat iPhone sales to the tune of $7.8 billion last year according to Motley Fool).
  • Build out its direct-to-customer sales and marketing options like the company's retail stores (an approach Apple has always used and has been ramping up for iPhone sales) and its Windows Stores within Best Buy stores (an approach both Apple and Samsung have used and that Microsoft could likely also use at other electronics or big box stores).
  • Offer bundles that include Windows Phone with other Microsoft ecosystem products like the Surface and Xbox.

All of these ideas are moderate to long-term plays, and it would take Microsoft some time to complete them and to have an impact on the smartphone market. The good news for the company is that Microsoft is big enough and rich enough to afford it.

This story, "5 Things Microsoft Must Do to Save Windows Phone" was originally published by CITEworld.

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