Steve Ballmer recently said that Microsoft is not interested in building and selling its own phone. This was the same speech where he announced Windows Mobile 7 would be out in 2010. Instead, Microsoft would focus on the operating system and working with manufacturers to get products built. Should Microsoft be so rigid in this stance?
People ask me, will you build your own phone? Not our strategy to build our own phone. It's our strategy to sell software that we can use and support across a wide range of device manufacturers to encourage choice, choice in devices, choice in the operators.
That strategy certainly paid off in the PC world, but Microsoft has also done their own hardware. They make high quality keyboards and mice, sometimes even cutting edge. They went their own route with the X-Box, and other than a few too many Red Rings of Death plaguing some of the owners, the platform is solid. If my kid's gaming magazines are any indication, X-Box 360 is the platform to beat for more sophisticated games aimed at teens and above. The Zune is also a decent device. Given some of the features, like the radio, music sharing and built in Wi-Fi, the Zune is considered by some to be better than the iPod line of MP3 players. Of course, they are fighting an uphill battle against Apple and the incredibly rich iTunes music store. You get my point though, Microsoft is clearly capable of building great platforms from software to hardware. When it comes to phones, MS has great partners, but sometimes, a partner does something that makes users roll their eyes. Until very recently, most WM phones were memory starved, as if the manufacturer looked at the Windows Mobile specs and looked at what would really make a great phone, and they built it with half of the memory. Other times you have really great hardware all around, but then they skimp on something like the video driver frustrating users to no end. It doesn't follow that just because MS were to build a phone it would be perfect. However, if one person owned the whole thing, then one person is accountable. The wayit is now, Microsoft builds the OS, the manufacturers build the hardware and then the carriers customize it with their own software. When the consumer gets it and the device is sluggish or unreliable, there is a whole lot of finger-pointing going on between the three. Meanwhile, nothing gets fixed. After all, it isn't really "broken" it is just not quite up to snuff. I understand the predicament MS would put themselves in if they built a device. They'd surely tick off one or more partners by doing so. I am sure the MP3 makers that bought into "Plays for Sure" and Microsoft music format were none too happy about the Zune. Still, I'd like to see what MS could crank out. I have little doubt that it would be one of the best Windows Mobile devices to date. Apple took this route from the start if you ignore the embarrassing ROKR that Motorola came out with. They control the entire user experience. AT&T only takes care of the billing. This is why iPhone users have received countless updates since the iPhone launched in 2007, which is in stark contrast to the very rare update you'll find for a Windows Mobile phone. I'd argue it is also why the iPhone has built so much brand equity for Apple. The device is clearly identified with them, whereas some people with a Windows Mobile phone don't even realize it is Windows, especially the way some manufacturers and carriers put so much of their own UI on the device the product MS put out is barely recognizable. It would be nice if Ballmer could find a way to build a phone or two each year while maintaining relationships with the carriers and manufacturers.