Microsoft is the Old Apple / Google is the Old Microsoft

I shall begin my rant-tastic rant by stating two things:

1. – Thank you Engadget for being vital to this post (I shall be using liberal links to their various stories on the matter).

2. – It is impossible to be exhaustive about this topic, so I’ll TRY to be as concise as possible during said rant.

The “straw” for this back-breaking article is this article posted on Engadget this week (the result of a Q&A session at the MIX conference).  In short, it states that the new Windows Phone 7 Series phones will not have copy/paste functionality, nor will they have true multitasking (a la the card system found on the Palm Pre).  SAD.  PANDA.

As a tech aficionado, I have always been keenly interested in standing back and watching these large companies lumber around the world and gasping as I watch them drop their feet at the right and wrong places, usually to the corresponding level of approval of their fans/consumers.  What has been of particular note to me is watching the handful of titans in the industry in question (in this case mobile phones) dance the dance of what I refer to as “The Three I’s”: Imitating/Improving/Innovating.

Offering an aside, Khidr and I have discussed many times that, as much as we want to believe the marketing speak about how the customer is central focus of these companies,  but the not-too-awfully-harsh reality is that the paying customer is the central focus.  Companies of these sizes are driven by where the dollars are (guided in many cases by shareholders), and the choices they make have to be geared towards the most lucrative sectors.  And as tech aficionados, we have to come to the realization that, even though we are generally willing to part with early adopter dollars (which offer a pretty intense premium *cough* iPhone launch price *cough*), we are also quite discerning with our discretionary income, and therefore we make up a painfully small (though increasingly vocal) portion of the consumer base.

Getting back to The Three I’s, though.  The announcement that WP7S phones are not going to be offering copy/paste functionality smacks of de ja vu, and smacks largely of the first I, imitation.  Indeed, copy/paste took over two years to finally arrive for the iPhone.  More importantly though, looking over the WP7S announcements and OS specifications, it’s not all that difficult to see where their inspiration is coming from in lots of areas.  To keep perspective, everyone from the most jaded fanboy to the most non-tech-savvy individual on the connected planet needs to be perfectly clear about how amazing the iPhone has been, both commercially and for the mobile industry at large, due in no small part to the almost alien technology that seemed to power it when if first came out.  I’d like to take a moment to quote Paul Thurott from Part 2 of his iPhone review (this stuck with me long after I read it):

Make no mistake, the iPhone is one gorgeous device. I’m not exactly a social butterfly, but people have approached me to discuss the iPhone I’m holding in numbers that I’ve never experienced. (The only thing that ever came close was my 12-inch PowerBook G3, also an Apple device, which used to garner unsolicited comments from people on a fairly regular basis years ago.) As is customary now with Apple mobile devices, the iPhone is much thinner and lighter in person than you assume it will be after viewing photos of it online. Its screen is sleeker and more photo-realistic than seems possible. It looks, almost, like a device from the future, and as one reviewer accurately put it (in a rare example where mainstream press hyperbole is actually true), the iPhone makes all other smart phones look like Soviet-era machinery by comparison. No doubt about it, there’s the iPhone and then there’s everything else.

What Apple has done is re-invented the smartphone in such a potent way that it has introduced it to a truly untapped sector of people who never even considered playing with the fathers of smartphones such as Blackberries and WinMo/PocketPC devices of yore.  (As a video game nut, it merits mention that a similar thing has happened with Nintendo’s Wii, and the motion controller launching this year from Microsoft and Sony are painfully relevant echoes of the mobile phone topic we are discussing today).

Microsoft smells that money, and they are moving, unabashedly, in that direction.

The piece of this that hurts the most is that we as the tech consumer don’t really mind a bit of imitation when it is sprinkled with the right level of improvement (and a dash of innovation is of course the “magic” that pushes things into the stratosphere).  The iPhone IS  a great smartphone, but there are serious missteps (widely publicized I might add) that don’t also require imitation.  Yes, the iPhone was hugely successful, but it was DESPITE those missteps, not because of them.  This is not some arcane magical spell that needs to be repeated verbatim to open the secret door to a customer’s heart.  Why can’t we take what is great and step things up in the areas that so sorely need improvement?

This not to say that there is zero improvement present in the WP7S phones.  The superior Zune music service and the state-of-the-art Xbox Live ecosystem will have varying-yet-pervasive levels of integration into the phone experience, the much-more-stringent hardware requirements will ensure a much-more-consistent experience throughout the various hardware and carrier partners (which in and of itself is another improvement to the AT&T-locked, Apple-bred hardware we are used to), and the strong leverage of other Microsoft products such as Bing will make your phone an much more omniscient device when it comes to using your device for small, tech-benefiting life choices such as “which Texas BBQ places are close to me?” (hint: the answer will always be Salt Lick).  And let’s not forget the hub system; if true innovation is to be found in the W7PS phones, this hub system is where you’ll find it.  For the first time in modern computing, there is an OS-level, user-independent categorization of your applications.  The idea that a music app just magically lives and can be accessed in the music hub is the kind of brilliant elegance that I first saw in the online “it just fucking works” experience that Xbox Live affords gamers.

But copy/paste guys?  Let’s not forget that Windows Mobile (you know, the “old and busted” Microsoft doesn’t want to talk about anymore) has always been a strong presence in the business world (RIM and Microsoft have always sparred in that ring without contest), and things like copy/paste and multitasking are parts of the business world that, regardless of implementation (which has certainly caused its own problems), keep users productive on-the-go.  Unilaterally purging those features simply because Apple did feels extremely short-sighted.  I stand by the fact that Microsoft has some of the brightest software engineers in the business, so I’m sure there are other intricacies that went into the decision, but without a clear-cut answer (per that recent post on Engadget, “Microsoft says most users, including Office users, don’t really need clipboard functionality”. Yeah…), we are left with a fairly obvious aping of the Apple strategy in a quest to ape their business success.

Turning the discussion briefly to Google, it’s also interesting that they are glomming (I’ve always hated that word) off of the old strategy that Microsoft used to fuel the Windows Mobile machine through version 6.5: namely, a strategy of scatter-shooting your OS onto as many platforms as will have you and bifurcating your OS in a strange class-based system (Android 1.x vs. 2.x) depending on the hardware performance.   I find this a little bit disturbing (indeed the Monolith that is Microsoft was nimble enough to abandon this model all but entirely), and also pretty heavily weighted to the imitation portion of the spectrum (although again, not taking away from their other I’s, we have improvement showing in the stronger overall integration with their services, and their innovation shown in the bottom-just-dropped-out-of-the-GPS-business announcement of free Google Navigation for those blessed with Android 2.x).

A special mention during all of these enormous moves/choices that these companies are making must be made to Palm.  The Pre truly represents a stake in the ground as far as marrying many of the best choices all of these recent developments.  I applaud them for offering strong multitasking, controlled hardware partnerships, and careful expansion to multiple carriers, all wrapped in a mostly-intuitive package.  It is certainly not a media phone, no question there (something I think should be a new category now that the iPhone has stiff competition in WP7S), but there is a purity about the Palm approach in webOS that is impressive in this time, and they (in my opinion) have innovated in a more pronounced way than all of their competitors.

It is perhaps with a heavy heart that this must be considered with only a nominal amount of importance in this day and age; Palm has literally pulled themselves away from the jaws of Hell with a major re-invention of their approach to smartphones, and much of the financial momentum they would have enjoyed has been swallowed in a nearly unprecedented rescue effort for the company.  Meanwhile, these other juggernauts (Microsoft/Google/Apple) have had the luxury of offering merely a piece of the smartphone puzzle, and when it doesn’t work they simply float through on the strengths of the other legs of their business.  It’s great business, but it slows the pace of innovation, and it is we the consumer (paying or otherwise) that suffer.

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