When it comes to product choices and corporate rivalries, the world seems to love dualities — Coke Vs Pepsi, Mac Vs PC, Bears Vs Packers. And so too, everyone seems to line up either with the Apple iPhone or Google’s Android. But Microsoft is the scrappy upstart trying to be the third name in smartphones. This month, Dave and Rick ask: Is there room for WIndows Phone? Does anyone want it? Should anyone want it?
Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.
Rick: I know exactly one person who owns a Windows Phone: Your wife. And I suspect she uses it only because you’re too cheap to buy her a good phone. By which I mean something running Android or iOS. Because, let’s face it, those two operating systems totally dominate the smartphone market. Whether they deserve to is another matter, but it does raise a question I’ve been wondering about lately: Does the market need Windows Phone? Seriously, what is its reason for existing?
Dave: You must have woken up on the existential side of the bed today; I applaud your intellectual growth. I think that there are really three answers to that question. First and foremost, the pragmatic answer is that WIndows Phone exists because Microsoft thinks that if it doesn’t have a dominant position in the smartphone business, it will be out of business in our lifetime, and I suspect that’s an accurate assessment. From an ecosystem perspective, Windows Phone brings the genetic diversity needed to keep smartphones evolving. WIthout competition, innovation will fade and we’ll be left with what we had before the iPhone: Microsoft’s failed Windows Mobile operating system and BlackBerry, both of which frankly sucked. Finally, you can look at it functionally: Windows Phone exists to give people a smartphone alternative that isn’t built on the same app-centric foundation as both iPhone and Android. By which I mean that Microsoft originally wanted to bake stuff like social sharing into the OS, so you didn’t have to install apps to share. The OS could just do it. I’m not saying that any of those are good reasons. But they are the reasons.
Rick: Hello? Hello, Dave? It’s the real world calling. Are you there? Ah, I see you’re not. Well, let me leave a reality-check message for you. Hi, Dave, this is Reality calling. Just because Microsoft thinks Windows Phone needs to exist does not, in fact, mean it needs to exist. Also, our records show that you are eligible for a no-obligation trip to Cancun! Please call us back at 888-REALITY. Beeeep. Actually, as usual, you misunderstand my intention: Although I still have a bad taste in my mouth from Microsoft foisting the horrendous Pocket PC on the world, eventually driving the vastly superior Palm out of business, Windows Phone is actually a pretty decent product. What I wonder is whether Microsoft was too late to the party, and too late transforming Windows Phone from “sucky” to “decent.” Now, we live in an Android and iOS world. What possible incentive would anyone have for switching?
Dave: We used to live in a Windows Mobile and BlackBerry world; what possible incentive was there to switch to the iPhone? Once, we even lived in a square rock world. Why would anyone switch to the wheel? Because it was better. And Microsoft is trying to make a better smartphone.Windows Phone 8.1 is chock full of brilliant flourishes that are better than iOS or Android. Live tiles that deliver useful information without opening the app. The lock screen is highly customizable with apps that show you valuable at-a-glance info. And let me blow your mind: How about a world of universal apps that run on both the phone and Windows desktop? Finally, you can truly have access to the same stuff no matter where you are, or what device you’re on. So you can just stuff your cheekiness in a sack, mister. How are those for incentives to switch?
Rick: The iPhone was vastly superior to anything that came before it (and anything since, in my humble opinion). While I appreciate the symmetry between Windows Phone 8.1 and, um, Windows Desktop 8.1, why don’t you name some of those “brilliant flourishes” that make it better than Android or iOS? While you’re making–er, thinking–those up, let me remind you that the OS is still missing a lot of apps many users consider critical: Dropbox, FlipBoard, HBO Go, PayPal, Pinterest, RunKeeper, Uber, YouTube… shall I go on? And forget pairing your Windows Phone with something as basic as a FitBit; there’s no official app for it. It’s very telling that so many major app developers have shied away from Microsoft. Why do you suppose that is?
Dave: Dude, I just did list those flourishes–don’t you read what I write? Or are you so close-minded that you refuse to acknowledge them? Keep in mind I’m not saying that Windows Phone 8.1 is better overall than iOS (or even Android), but it certainly has some very sweet features. Here are a few more: I know that you gush about Android’s Swype keyboard, for example. Well, Windows Phone 8.1 has Word Flow, which works even better. Boom! Or how about Wi-Fi Sense, which automatically logs you into free hotspots, no effort required? And let’s not forget Cortana, which is a voice assistant that, in some ways, combines the best parts of both Siri and Google Now. It’s not perfect, but it’s seriously competitive. All things considered, there’s no way you can honestly look at Windows Phone 8.1 and dismiss it out of hand. Indeed, one can make the case that someone coming to smartphones without an iPhone or Android bias could be persuaded to buy Windows Phone on its own merits. It’s that good.
Rick: Speaking of not reading the opposing viewpoint (you’re right: I skip everything that comes after “Dave:”), you conveniently neglected to discuss apps–probably because you don’t have a leg to stand on. But, hey, all of this is veering away from my initial question, which was not whether Windows Phone is any good, but whether it has a place alongside two such robust, established, and entrenched mobile operating systems. Given its paltry market share (3.6 percent in Q3 2013, according to IDC), the market would seem to suggest it doesn’t. I honestly don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Would our political system benefit from a robust third party? Do we really need Royal Crown if there’s already Coke and Pepsi? If Android and iOS are getting the job done for nearly everyone, who cares about Windows Phone, anyway?
Dave: Unfortunately, Rick, you don’t analogy well. Despite the incoherent ramblings of fringe parties, voters would be unlikely to benefit from a robust third party because of the basic mechanics of how our political system works. But in technology, robust competition is a good thing — it increases consumer choice and spurs competition and innovation. Microsoft is a motivated underdog right now, and it shows; not only is Windows Phone 8.1 very good, but the pace of innovation between versions is remarkable. That’s great for phone shoppers. And in the same way you shouldn’t call Rebecca Black a national treasure just because Fridays was watched 67 million times, you can’t discount Windows Phone just because it currently has a small market share and a modest app library. Windows Phone will either become more popular in time — both in market share and variety of apps — or eventually Microsoft will have to throw in the towel. But if they do that, I guarantee you the smartphone landscape will become a bleaker place.
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Photo Credit: Microsoft