Microsoft needed to take risks and make a mobile splash in order to remake its image as a technology leader, but instead displayed ineptness in the unveiling of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) today.
The event lacked drama, creativity and news. CEO Steve Ballmer repeatedly called the WP7 "delightful," as if he was a restaurant critic describing hints of asparagus in a salmon appetizer.
Here's how Ballmer introduced WP7: "The Windows phone [is] a different kind of phone, a phone that is really designed to try to be always delightful, wonderfully personal, and help people get in, out, and back to life."
What the heck?
In the past, Microsoft had built a string of successes by playing it safe. Time and again Microsoft would observe an emerging trend on the sidelines for years before wading into the fray. Search engine Bing, a relative success so far, is a good example. Today, that strategy backfired.
Ballmer's presentation underscored just how late Microsoft is in the smartphone game. The WP7 calendar, for instance, displayed an "I'll be late" button. Ballmer also proclaimed that there are thousands of apps being developed "right now" for WP7--comedic considering that Apple's App Store has more than 250,000 apps available today.
On the opposite end of the stratosphere is Apple's Steve Jobs. Here's how he described the iPhone 4 earlier this year: "It is beyond a doubt the most precise thing, one of the most beautiful things we've ever made." Jobs goes on to cover eight key features.
Did anyone from Cupertino even watch the Microsoft debacle? If they did, here are three lessons from the WP7 event that Apple doesn't need to learn from Microsoft:
What's New is Old is New. Who Knew?
WP7 will bring to the smartphone world music and video (albeit not from iTunes), search, Exchange e-mail, third-party email, gaming, social networking apps, a way to group apps together, and more.
Well sure, the iPhone already has all these things.
Oddly, WP7 won't have cut-and-paste or multitasking apps aside from the apps Microsoft provides. The iPhone, of course, already figured this stuff out after suffering criticism for not having these features earlier. By not have having these features in WP7, Microsoft not only looks late to the party but stuck in traffic.
How Not To Throw a Party
People have written books about Apple's mastery of the message. Jobs directs a culture of secrecy and possibly planned leaks that work to build suspense like a great spy novel. The story culminates into a climactic Apple event that ends with Jobs grinning at the crowd and uttering the famous words, "One more thing."
So how does Microsoft tell a story? Well, it reveals everything special about a planned product release months before the actual event. That way, people can make up their own minds about whether or not to attend the darn thing.
At the event, make sure to trot out boring speakers (such as AT&T's Ralph de la Vega at the WP7 event) who can give the audience a history lesson of the entire product category.
And for heaven's sake, don't spend valuable stage time showing off the power of the product like Apple does with iPhone games. Instead, show how to customize an avatar. Or better yet, bring in hardware folks to talk about the system.
One more thing (no pun intended): Make sure when hosting a big event that you don't have any real news to tell.
Simple Message, Please
Reporters are simpletons; we like simple messages especially when it comes to complex technology. Yet Microsoft continues to torture us by miring the message in a way that leaves more questions than answers.
Case in point: The unique features of WP7 phones take "all the capability of Web services and puts that in the phone experience," said Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president, Windows phone program management. "We tried to build a smart design where the phone anticipates things you need."
But the biggest question of all left unanswered is: How will WP7 compete with Android and iPhone?
Microsoft didn't deliver a clear reason why WP7 is a better buy in a crowded smartphone market. WP7 doesn't appear to have better hardware features nor, critically, better software (indeed, it has far less).
To be fair, WP7 phones will have better integration with Windows Office and work with Sharepoint servers, which might make them more appealing to enterprises. Maybe Microsoft plans to strengthen ties with Office--a strategy we've seen many times--in order to convince companies to buy WP7 phones.
Then again, consumers buy smartphones, not companies. With consumers clearly in the iPhone's corner, coupled with WP7's late entry into the smartphone game, Apple might teach Microsoft a thing or two this time around.