People might not have been sure of exactly what would happen at Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) launch of Windows Phone 8 on Monday, but they probably didn't expect to hear the words 'iPhone" and "Android" within the first 20 minutes.
Rather than ignore the fact that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) had both gotten a head start with their latest offerings for the smartphone crowd earlier this fall, Microsoft corporate vice-president Joe Belfiore acknowledged that, five years ago, Apple "set the standard" for the smartphone market with the iPhone, with a UI that was "later copied by Android." Ouch! Microsoft hasn't traditionally engaged in a lot of trash-talking, but those days are apparently over. The iPhone 5, Belfiore noted, added enough room for another five icons, but Microsoft wanted to move away "from that tired old metaphor." And the software giant's approach offers an intriguing call to action for app developers everywhere.
"We wanted to put people at the center of the experience, not icons for apps," Belfiore said. That's why Windows Phone 8 uses what Microsoft is calling "live tiles," or shapes that let users easily navigate between photos of friends, social media updates and, yes, apps.
The people-first philosophy offers an interesting contrast with how Apple built up the smartphone industry. As with the iMac, the PowerBook and almost every other device it has launched, Apple has been focused on creating technology products that would quickly turn into status symbols. It's not about courting popularity by being accommodating, but by being a cool kid with whom everyone wants to become best friends. If the iPhone has remained the Porsche of smartphones, Windows Phone 8 is more like a station wagon--down to earth, family-friendly and catering to whatever might hold mass appeal.
That's not to suggest app developers shouldn't consider Windows Phone 8 as a viable platform. Among the reasons:
- The Live App advantage: According to Belfiore, Microsoft will ensure apps on Windows Phone 8 are treated like "Live Apps," which will be more deeply integrated into digital wallets, social services and other online mobile hubs. For developers frustrated with Apple's traditionally long approval process, Windows Phone 8 might offer an accelerated way to connect apps into the areas that are most popular with consumers.
- The lock screen spotlight: Windows Phone 8 will feature a lock screen with room at the top to display either a rotation of the user's favourite apps, or a random rotation of apps. For developers struggling to increase repeat usage, the lock screen could offer a useful reminder of what they're installed.
- Room for discoverability: As of right now, Microsoft's App Store has about 120,000 apps, according to Belfiore. The company hopes to attract 45 of the top 50 apps to its platform, which means there's a considerably greater chance of being treated as a featured app or being found more easily by Windows Phone 8 users than through Apple or Google Play.
Of course, the proof for developers will come later this week at Microsoft's Build conference near its headquarters in Seattle, where they will get a closer look at the Windows Phone 8 SDK and have the opportunity to ask more questions about how their apps will live and breathe on Microsoft-powered devices. It's not necessarily a bad idea for Microsoft to put people first as it creates the smartphone experience of the future, but if they're smart, developers should come a close second.--Shane