Interview: Microsoft

Mobile boss Aaron Woodman discusses Windows Phone 7
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Windows Phone 7 launched in October with the backing of celebrity Apple fanboy Stephen Fry, who popped up at the London press conference to prove he was “not a monotheist” about technology, and to applaud Microsoft for “finally getting it” by creating a consumer-friendly mobile operating system.

With a full overhaul and new set of features, the platform is deliberately different from its predecessor, Windows Mobile 6.5, which was poorly received and widely seen as an incremental update to the earlier 6.1 version. Even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer described it as “not the full release we wanted”.

So what was the thinking behind the new operating system and where will the software giant go from here? We asked Aaron Woodman, director of Microsoft’s mobile communications business…

What are the key new features in Windows Phone 7?

A lot of things are different. I think the ‘live tiles’ will stand out for people immediately as a nice combination of something that’s very simple, leads to applications, websites, your playlist or people, and is really dynamic.

The other thing I think will stand out will be the ‘hubs’, the idea that you can do some integration – not that you can’t have applications, but that applications can work better together.

A lot of people love rich functionality and definitely the services, but they were feeling overwhelmed. By reducing some of the complexities and by bringing those things together there came to be another choice, and there are a lot of people looking for that.

We’ve tossed everything out of the previous version. We had 20,000 applications for Windows Mobile – not one of them will work on Windows Phone. You really have to believe the change is worth it and take that risk, which we did. The level of change is probably even greater than what we did with some of our other products like Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Were people feeling overwhelmed by previous versions of Windows for mobile, or by your competitors?

Probably a little of both, to be totally honest. If you look at smartphones since 2005, the real change has been explosive growth of capabilities. But it’s coming to a point where it’s really a lot and there’s an opportunity to re-organise that.

In previous versions of Windows Mobile there were these really complex icons and screens and screens of menus. Even if you look at some of our competitors I don’t think anyone really anticipated as many applications or as much growth of functionality and they’re starting to run into dead ends and trying to change the way they function.

Do you think Microsoft made any mistakes with Windows Mobile?

Yeah, we made a lot of mistakes. I’ll give you an analogy – many people don’t remember but we actually built a game console called the Sega Dreamcast. It was not very well received for a variety of reasons, but the company stuck at it and we got Xbox, so we took a lot of really tough lessons and carried them forward.

Similarly, with Windows Phone there is a lot we learned. The first thing we learned is that the market is bigger than just the business user. When you think about the products we built, we really built for a customer who had since evolved. In the early 2000s the only people who could afford a phone with this kind of functionality were not like you and me; they were in suits, business-like.

We kept building for that customer and what happened in 2005, 2006, 2007 is that there were a lot more people who said: “Hey, I actually want to stay in touch with my friends and family.” And they didn’t have the same aesthetic or functional desires that the previous business users had, so we really took that in our stride and tried to deliver on those needs.

How will you attract app developers back to the platform?

There’s three things. It turns out developers actually want to build on cool products, so job number one is to build a cool product.

Number two is to sell the product – at the end of the day, developers will go where the market opportunity is, so the more devices we sell, the more customers we create for developers.

Lastly, it’s tools. I speak one language, I speak English and I would tend to look for places I can go to that speak English, because it’s much easier. And that’s true for developers too, they want to develop in a language they know. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to use our technology called Silverlight, it’s a developer language that people have used for years on the web, so we’ve been able to tap into a set of developers who already know the language in the tools section, and we’ve made that available for free.

Do you think Microsoft will make its own smartphone again after the failure of the Kin?

I don’t know. There’s no doubt in my mind that Microsoft will not give up in the mobile space; that’s one thing I know. I think Microsoft believes that it’s paramount to the success of the company and it’s willing to invest time, take risks and change its strategy if that’s required.

I personally believe, and I think the business believes, that we’re better with partners. There’s more diversity of hardware when you work with partners; they’re trying to create a niche, they’re looking at the individual customers, but I wouldn’t rule anything out. Today, Microsoft wants to be successful in mobile, and I don’t think we see any hard and fast boundaries to that.

Stephen Fry described Windows Phone as the ‘underdog’, would you agree with that?

Absolutely – this is a tough, competitive market. We very much feel like we have to be better at listening to our customers, we have to be better at working with the channels, we have to be better at training retail.

I think we have a lot of people who are very passionate about the space and we know in reality that the competition is not going to go away any time soon. I love that, how often is Microsoft the underdog? I do think that’s probably true.

Do you think Microsoft could be the market leader?

It’s definitely our aspiration but first and foremost we have to ship a product that when people buy it, they fall in love. So it’s not so much step one: ship the product, step two: take over the world.

We all want to sell a lot of phones but I think we’re concerned first that people have a great experience, because that’s going to help us get to the quantity much more than distribution and marketing.

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