January 05, 2012, 9:27 AM — Misunderstood, mocked by its competitors, blocked from the market, and little used by the average user.
Ten years ago, this would have been a harsh but fair description of Linux. Today, however, it's seems perfectly apt to use these labels to describe a completely different bit of technology: the Windows Phone operating system.
Oh, how times have changed.
This particular lightbulb came on for me after reading a Toronto Standard article yesterday entitled "Windows Phone Is Failing Because It's Great."
(I'll wait for you to clean up the spit-take from your screen.)
After I wiped off the coffee from my own workstation and actually read the article, I couldn't help but recognize elements of decade-old arguments the Linux community (including me) made about Linux back in the days when we all used to wait for Craig Mundie or Steve Ballmer to say the next outrageous thing.
The author, Navneet Alang, makes great points about the conundrum in which Microsoft finds itself with Windows Phone: the operating system is well-built and critically acclaimed on many levels, yet it still can't seem to catch a break with getting into the user space in any meaningful way.
"The reason, [Windows Phone GM Charlie] Kindel argued, is that Google's Android has made things frictionless for carriers and hardware manufacturers. Anyone can do anything with Android, and that capacity to make many phones cheaply led to wide adoption. Apple, meanwhile, can do whatever they want because they've nailed all levels of the game: hardware, software, apps and media. On the other hand, Kindel argued, Microsoft's insistence on certain consistencies of interface and hardware has left its partners handcuffed."
This middle ground puts Microsoft right in the same position desktop Linux had been in in the early 2000s (and, to some extent, even today): superior, well-built, and secure, but unable to catch on in the user space due to a lack of wanted applications and desire by the hardware manufacturers to pre-load the operating system.
Where the two situations diverge is the fact that Microsoft seems to have brought this problem on itself by trying to treat Windows Phone exactly like it did Windows: absolute control over the operating system. With Windows it could get away with this--OEMs and application developers would play ball because Windows got an earlier jump on the market place than Linux and was available on commoditized desktop machines, unlike Apple's MacOS.
But now, with Android being the open and commoditized-platform OS and Apple still (still!) owning the entire iOS device stack, Microsoft is still trying the same tactic: dictating to device makers and application developers what can and can't be done based on Microsoft's exacting standards.
The result? A very good mobile platform for which no one wants to code. Android's and iOS dominance of the market means that developers and manufacturers can easily just walk away from such demands and go code for an open and/or popular platforms.
"More to the point, in thinking of Windows Phone as a kind of compromise between Android's many choices and Apple's emphasis upon user experience, Microsoft have put themselves in an untenable position in which they can't control whether hardware is sexy or not, but must throw cash at developers to create apps. It's a bit of an unfortunate mess."
In mobile space, Microsoft is no longer the bully anyone is paying attention to.
To say I'm experiencing Schadenfreude is a bit of on understatement, since watching Microsoft endure the slings and arrows it once (and still) heaped on Linux is frankly pretty damn funny. It also make me wonder what would have happened in an alternate universe where young Linus Torvalds would have invented Linux a few years earlier and thus given the venerable operating system more of a head start in the nascent PC marketplace.
Actually, we don't really have to wonder. Watching the history is very much like watching an alternate history of Linux, and shows that with proper timing and execution, a free and open operating system can easily dominate the market.
There are other differences between the situations, of course. Unlike Linux, Microsoft has the financial and political muscle to bludgeon it's way into a better situation for Windows Phone. This would certainly explain Microsoft's $1 billion need to partner with Nokia, since it gives Windows Phone a fighting chance to be on a device that consumers may actually like. It also clearly explains why they feel the need to sue the pants off their mobile competitors, particularly Android, which dominates the commodity device space Windows Phone desperately needs.
So while Windows Phone is currently getting the squeeze, don't expect Microsoft to lie down quietly and let the mobile space pass it by. The bully, it seems, still likes to hit.
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