Android (s goog) is the darling of the mobile world right now and has grown to be the best-selling platform in the U.S. in recent sales.
Microsoft’s (s msft) Windows Phone 7 is still waiting to go on sale starting Nov. 8 after a showy launch yesterday in New York. The new platform has a long way to go in a hyper-competitive market, and there’s no guarantee Microsoft is going to be successful in taking down Android, Apple’s iOS (s aapl) or even Research In Motion’s BlackBerry OS (s rimm).
Having spent time with the devices and hearing from executives at the launch event yesterday, I think if Microsoft executes well — and that’s a big if considering this is a first release with plenty of potential bugs to deal with — Windows Phone 7 could bite into the growth of Android and regain significant ground in the smartphone space. It could also stifle RIM’s and Apple’s efforts but I think Microsoft has the best shot at hurting Android’s momentum.
Android loyalty is strong, but it isn’t set in stone. Aside from iPhone owners (80 percent), Android users are the most likely to say they’ll buy another device (70 percent) with the same OS, according to Nielsen. However, there’s a fair number of Android users (14 percent) who say they would switch to the iPhone for their next purchase, and 16 percent who say they would be open to buying a different device with another OS.
While Android’s loyalty numbers are strong, much of its strength comes from its availability in a number of form factors, prices that are often cheaper than an iPhone, and support on all four major U.S. carriers. Basically, it’s the best non-iPhone available on whatever carrier people have, and that’s where it’s really taken off. Yes, there are people who love the openness of Android or enjoy tinkering with the devices, or maybe they just prefer an alternative to Apple. But for many people, Android is the best runner-up to the iPhone.
Pretty soon however, Android will have competition for the title of the best non-Apple smartphone available on all carriers. Windows Phone 7 is launching on AT&T (S T) and T-Mobile, and is slated to go to Verizon (S VZ) and Sprint (S S) next year, avoiding the mistake of the Palm Pre (S HPQ) which took too long to move to other carriers.
Android will still have a loyal base, but it’s a largely a collection of new converts. There’s no guarante they won’t jump ship when their contract expires, especially when they see devices that compare favorably. Prospective Android buyers may also reconsider when they take a look at WP7. That’s because…
Windows Phone 7 provides a better user experience. It starts with the quality control enforced by Microsoft. There’s more consistency from device to device, both in the interface and the layout of buttons. On Android devices, there are multiple skins and UIs available, and even the button layout changes between devices and manufacturers. Also, because Microsoft will be able to push out software updates over the air, each phone will get updated at the same time. On Android, it’s anyone’s guess when your particular model will get an update, because carriers control the update process for all Android phones aside from the Nexus One.
The interface also feels more intuitive and slick. While Android often seems like a copy of iOS with some added functionality through a menu button, WP7 really feels unique and engaging in a very good way. The panoramic navigation feels fresh and fun. Android, by contrast, often seems to involve one more button press than I’d like.
The Windows Phone 7 is by no means a revolutionary platform, but it provides the most wow and uniqueness since the iPhone appeared. Its overall experience makes Android feel a touch unpolished at times.
Games on Windows Phone 7 will look much better than Android games. I’ve played a few games on WP7 devices, and they look and play better than anything on Android. It helps that touch input is first-rate on WP7 phones, but it goes back to the XNA developer tools, which are familiar to many game developers.
Microsoft, with its Xbox 360 business, is well positioned to lure serious game developers over to Windows Phone 7. Android, on the hand, hasn’t had a great track record getting game developer support. EA (s erts) and Gameloft are on board, but for its size, the platform hasn’t been a huge priority yet for game developers. Even Angry Birds developer Rovio released a full version for webOS before it launched a lite beta version on Android.
Games matter, and it’s partly the reason why the iPhone and the iPod touch have been so successful. Games have been the largest category in the iTunes App Store for a while now.
Windows Phone 7 will likely have a better app story overall. The apps on WP7 look great so far. Yes, it’s a limited view, but even in the fast-paced world of smartphones, the third-party apps on WP7 look very modern. There will be many more apps in Google’s Android Market for some time, but WP7 titles should be high-quality, partly because Microsoft is paying some developers for their work.
Microsoft is trying to catch up, but it shows they’re taking the apps business seriously, which means we should see more than the 18 apps that launched with the Palm Pre. Microsoft said developers have already downloaded the developer tools more than 500,000 times. I tried out apps like IMDb (s amzn), Fandango, Netflix (s nflx) and eBay (s ebay), all of which are available on Android, except for Netflix, which is likely coming soon. The Android apps are clean and utilize tabs or buttons similar to the iPhone. The WP7 apps looked more dynamic, with bigger icons and the ability to swipe left and right for more menus. If developers make use of the tools Microsoft is offering, they’ll create programs that invite more usage and also feel part of a family of WP7 apps. Microsoft says developers will be able to make apps in a shorter amount of time because their tools are so good.
It’s a big question whether app developers will support Windows Phone 7. Microsoft, for its part, overhauled the Windows Marketplace for Mobile to make it more friendly to customers and developers. It has a web store where you can buy apps from a desktop browser, something we’re still waiting for from Google. Microsoft seems committed to making sure there are actual paying transactions happening in its store, which doesn’t always seem like the case with Android. Developers who might be deterred by Windows Phone 7’s small market share may be convinced to sell in Marketplace because it’s more designed to move product.
Microsoft will spend money on Windows Phone 7 marketing. Expect to see a lot of marketing for Windows Phone 7. I talked to an exec who said Microsoft will be pushing the new platform, but he wouldn’t outline the marketing spend. At least one analyst has estimated Microsoft will spend $400 million on the WP7 launch.
Google participates in marketing with its carrier partners, but it doesn’t run its own ads. What you see are the oddly robotic-obsessed Droid Does campaign ads that hype a particular line-up from one carrier, such as Verizon Wireless. There’s no cohesive Android marketing campaign that spans all the devices.
Microsoft has the opportunity to tell a story, much like Apple does with the iPhone. It’s building a narrative around phones running its platform, as you can see in the first ads, which tout Windows Phone 7 as “a phone that can save us from our phones.” Say what you want about the ads, but they’re part of a cohesive message that extends to all the phones. At least they are better than the Palm Pre’s bizarre New Age ads.
You can be sure Microsoft will do a lot of promotion around its phones and the way they tie back into its popular assets like Xbox Live, Bing and Microsoft Office. The lack of a single marketing campaign for Android hasn’t hurt sales, but I think the Microsoft ads will get people comparing, and they’re going to find a lot to like.
Windows Phone 7 still has plenty of work to do. Don’t get me wrong; I think Windows still has its work cut out for it. Copy and paste isn’t scheduled to arrive until early 2011, and multi-tasking is still a no-show. There are still bugs, like the inability to run certain apps in landscape view. And then there’s the huge task of generating momentum in a market defined by the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android devices.
Looking at the market, I see the iPhone continuing a steady march because it’s still the best overall experience. With a Verizon Wireless model likely to come early next year, sales should continue on an upward climb. RIM is already losing market share, and WP7 could contribute to that. But it’s Android that has really benefited as the platform for people who are interested in an iPhone but don’t want to switch to AT&T or object to Apple for some reason. Windows Phone 7 has the ability to swoop in and vie for that iPhone competitor spot. The makings are there. Let’s see if Microsoft makes good on this opportunity.
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