Go ahead -- lambaste me for even mentioning it. I'll wait. Now, how's about we look beyond the surface -- the beautified tile regime and the whimsical animations -- and focus on what actually matters when looking at a smartphone platform. You don't have to look far to get a solid grasp on which platforms are soaring, which are hanging tough and which have one foot in the proverbial grave. Gartner's latest worldwide mobile report shows Android and iOS at the top, with rarely discussed terms like "Symbian" and "Bada" above some company called "Microsoft." Which brings me to a question that has been haunting me for months: "Why?"
Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 7
Series nearly three full years ago, bringing with it an extraordinarily fresh take on a smartphone world that has grown soggy with pages of grid-mapped programs. But, as things have turned out, beauty that's only skin deep doesn't do much for market share -- even when you're pouring millions upon millions of dollars into marketing, coaxing one of the most notable names in mobile to run your OS exclusively and cutting deals with carriers like it's just some trivial affair.
I've waxed lyrical about the danger of Windows Phone losing out simply because it offers (comparably) little in terms of ecosystem glitz, but these days, I'm growing closer to putting the platform's fate on a single name: Google.
Have you used a Windows Phone 7 or Windows Phone 8 product lately? I have. I've spent extensive time with the Lumia 900 as well as the newly introduced Lumia 920, even going so far as pulling my SIM away from the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus in an attempt to live solely in a Windows Phone universe. I typically last around 72 hours before one niggle in particular just makes the experience completely untenable.
For starters, using Gmail through the Windows Phone email program is a bona fide lesson in frustration. A shockingly low amount of Gmail features even work, and even the basics feel poorly implemented. Looking for stars or labels? Keep dreaming. You could argue that not everyone uses Gmail, and you'd be right. But nearly half a billion people do, and I'd argue that of all the potential customers who would even think of giving Windows Phone a try, a huge portion of that would be a crossover audience that has also given Gmail a try. You know, common demographics.
I'd argue that of all the potential customers who would even think of giving Windows Phone a try, a huge portion of that would be a crossover audience that has also given Gmail a try.
But it goes beyond Microsoft's inability to concoct a default email application that plays nice with Gmail logins. Apple's own Mail app is a complete disgrace to hard core Gmail users. So, if that's the case, why do I find myself regularly using an iPhone? Because it's got options, man.
You see, Google has bothered to create a genuine Gmail app for iOS, and in some ways, the refreshed edition looks and feels even more elegant than what ships on Android. It supports the iPhone's push notification system and it gives me access to all of the Gmail features I'm used to. And honestly, all of that is (partly) beside the point. iOS also has things like Sparrow, Mailbox, Evomail and countless other applications en route that all look to provide exemplary Gmail experiences. Where's that kind of passion from third-party developers on the Windows Phone front? I can count four legitimate Gmail options for iPhone right now; Windows Phone doesn't even have one, and Google isn't interested in changing that.
The Missing Googleplex
Let's act like email doesn't matter for a moment. Ever heard of a thing called "YouTube?" A few people have, or so I'm told. Turns out, Windows Phone doesn't even have a proper YouTube app... after three years on the market. Perhaps you've dabbled with a thing called Google Docs, or maybe you've started saving things to Google Drive. Both of those services are phenomenal and near universally loved. In the case of Docs, it stands a better-than-average chance at obviating the need for Office. In short, they matter -- especially to the tech-savvy crowd that would show even an ounce of interest in giving Windows Phone a legitimate whirl.
Google's Chrome browser is absolutely dominating the market share figures, from desktop right on down, and for good reason -- it's a solid, quick, stable browser that easily syncs across a litany of devices. Windows Phone excepted, of course. For the sake of time, I'm just going to run down a list of remaining mobile services that Google has a hand in: Translate, Voice, Earth, Calendar and Currents. I'm not even including things like Wallet and Latitude, which may or may not become staples in Google's own ecosystem.
Yes, third-party alternatives exist for a few of those, but let's not kid ourselves -- they're terrible.
Ask yourself what I've asked myself: how seriously can you take a mobile platform when it supports none of the above mentioned items? Yes, third-party alternatives exist for a few of those, but let's not kid ourselves -- they're terrible. The design language looks nothing like what you'd expect out of an actual, polished Google product. The best way I can find to describe the overall Google experience on Windows Phone is this: it feels KIRF'd. It's like every workaround app on the Marketplace was designed by an outfit that specializes in knockoff wares. I can't imagine that Microsoft is proud of that.
The iPhone factor
"But," you might say, "how can you respect the iPhone when even its Google experience is one that's bolted on?" A fair question, indeed. But let's take a look at reality. Google doesn't just kowtow to iPhone users -- it builds products to be amazing on iPhone. Every single major Google product -- as well as a few minor ones -- is on its archenemy's platform. Yes, I realize Google's intentions here probably aren't pure. It's not doing it because it adores Apple. It's doing it because a Google user on any platform stands a chance at delivering both information and revenue, but the end result is a win for consumers who prefer iPhone.
You can enjoy the spoils of two of the world's most robust mobile platforms on a single piece of hardware, and with practically no exceptions, you won't even notice that Google's tools weren't designed first for iOS.
If you're still somehow doubting the power of proper Google integration, let's step back to 2007. When Apple unveiled its original iPhone, it owned 0 percent of the smartphone market. The App Store did not even exist. The entire idea of a mobile ecosystem wasn't even fully formed in the minds of most -- perhaps not even in the minds of those creating iOS. And while nearly everything changed over the five years that saw iPhone OS evolve into iOS 5, one vital piece of the original equation remained intact: Google Maps.
If you're still somehow doubting the power of proper Google integration, look at the Maps situation on iPhone.
It's easy to overlook, to take for granted. From day one, the default iOS Maps app just worked. And it got better. Way better. It was like the icon that kept on giving. Quietly, subtly, Google's mapping platform helped make the iPhone a coveted item. Before long, folks were using this to get from Point A to Point B without even giving thought to the brains behind the dotted lines and geofences.
Then, iOS 6 happened. I can count on one hand the instances where something related to iPhone resulted in violent negative reactions from the mainstream -- Antennagate, the original iPhone's sudden price drop, the "cracking" iPhone 3G syndrome, and the mass activation outages upon the launch of the 3G. Oh, and Maps.
It took a shockingly short amount of time before -- seemingly -- the whole world was repulsed by whatever Apple had ushered into iOS 6 and dubbed "Maps." The outcry could be heard everywhere, from the local AT&T store to the evening news. To Apple, the move made all of the sense in the world. Google was becoming an even greater enemy, and at the core, Apple had essentially no leverage over how Google's Maps app acted, looked or received updates. But to the consumer, the only question left was this: "Why did Apple remove my old mapping system, and who do I have to pay to get it back?"
At once, Google's importance became comically clear. A portion of the iPhone's luster was built on a Google product, and even the most calloused of users would have a tough time arguing that the iPhone as we know it today would be "fine" without a single sprinkle of Google's magic. Seven hours after Google introduced its own Maps app into the App Store, it became the No. 1 free iPhone app. Apple itself even published that the top free iPhone app for all of 2012 was YouTube -- an app that wasn't even available to download three months ago.
In short, there's no way I'd consider using the iPhone if the only Google-made app in the iOS universe was a search program.
In short, there's no way I'd consider using the iPhone if the only Google-made app in the iOS universe was a search program. (Yes, that's the case in Windows Phone -- just a single Google app.) The iPhone would still have sold millions, sure, but one has to wonder how much less impactful it would've been without Google pushing its apps into the App Store.
For the better part of a year, I held onto a hope that Windows Phone 8 would be the revision that finally pushed Microsoft over the hump in the mobile world. In the recesses of my mind, I'd clung to hope that Google would extend an olive branch as it continues to do with Apple. But all of that hope evaporated after reading words from Clay Bavor, product management director at Google Apps. In a recent interview with V3, he stated the following:
"We have no plans to build out Windows apps. We are very careful about where we invest and will go where the users are but they are not on Windows Phone or Windows 8. If that changes, we would invest there, of course."
Dagger, meet heart. What most folks may not realize is just how improbable it is that Windows Phone will ever reach a place where Google could justify investing. It's the age-old chicken and egg problem. Google isn't going to waste effort on Windows Phone until Windows Phone is worth exerting effort on, but can Windows Phone elevate itself to such a point without Google investing the effort to begin with? Even the iPhone didn't have to make such a climb alone -- from day one, a pillar of the iPhone's universe was provided by Google in its Maps application.
Even the iPhone didn't have to make such a climb alone -- from day one, a pillar of the iPhone's universe was provided by Google in its Maps application.
There's a reason Microsoft is fighting tooth and nail to get Office onto iOS with an agreeable revenue split. There's also a reason that Apple couldn't care less if Pages and Keynote ever end up on Windows Phone, while Google has no interest in offering a legitimate Docs experience there. It's simply becoming impossible to believe that any mobile operating system in the modern era can thrive without a meaningful push from Google. If I'm being honest, I worry that this precise scenario will make or break BlackBerry 10, but at least RIM has a (shrinking, admittedly) enterprise market to fall back on. Microsoft is gunning for the exact same customer that Apple and Google presently hold captive. And the way I see it, it's going to need a heck of a lot of luck to win that customer over using Hotmail and Skype.
Oh, and Microsoft -- go ahead and prove me wrong. Please. We could really use the competition you're capable of providing.