Lost Number

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Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 OS will not run any apps developed for its previous versions. It has put its proverbial foot in the sandy marketplace and said no to expectations that all versions of Windows run all the applications ever written for it, and traded "backward compatibility" for a "clean slate."

I think it’s the dumbest smart thing Microsoft has done recently, at least on the brand and marketing front. I can name three reasons:

First, the new operating system won’t be available until much later this year, which means that all the phones bought until then will be rendered obsolete. Perhaps it helps that Windows isn’t a particularly popular system (it has approximately 11% of the market, which is still kinda huge, come to think of it). How could any marketer in his or her right mind announce that the next 6+ months of sales are going to be on clearance? Did Microsoft announce it has slashed prices on these products, or done anything to encourage people to buy it before it gets shelved? Er, no.

Second, if the announcement were unavoidable, as I believe it might have been leaked before getting confirmed, why didn’t Microsoft turn it into a positive, as follows: announce a new, "clean break" OS but have a plan in place to help every app developer create a new version so the announcement would include them? Imagine if the news had been that there were thousands of developers who’d been helped, encouraged, and even incentivized to aggressively pursue getting their apps on the new OS. The news would have been about starting something versus stopping.

Third, why isn’t this among the most important strategies at Microsoft? I know that it does lots of things, and many of them reasonably well (xBox is pretty cool, and its server/business functions are ironclad), but it’s in the operating system business. There’d be no Microsoft without Windows (and Excel, I guess) yet it always seems somewhat less clear on how it has improved its core product, let alone why anybody should buy it. Phone 7 is no exception…forget what the company announced and ask yourself why there wasn’t even the slightest mention of why it mattered. Is it blowing up its longtail of apps in order to invent a revolutionary new user experience? Are there big insights into redesigning the interface? Again, not really. It’s a new OS because that’s what the company rolls out now and then. From what I can tell, it’ll look and function kinda like an iPhone.

I think there was an immense opportunity here, and perhaps there’s one still. Maybe Microsoft isn’t in the OS business as much as it’s in the customer relationship business? It needs to tell customers why it deserves their patronage, and then do whatever it takes to keep them engaged in meaningful ways…most notably by using Microsoft products, and doing do happily.

This would represent an utter break with its existing approach to its brand and, in all honesty, fly in the face of much of the branding engagement nonsense that its agencies sell it (and propagate to other client victims). It’s not about funny videos or time-wasting strategies. It’s certainly not about getting consumers to think fond thoughts about the Microsoft brand.

It’s about doing things differently. On this point, Microsoft sets the standard for acting just like every other brand. Only not as effectively.

If I had to distill my thinking into a single concept, I’d suggest that it look at the linkages or leverage points between programs it sells, between its OS and users, and thus between Microsoft and its customers. If it did so, no news announcement could ever be conceived as focused on a product, functionality, or some imaginary branding association: it would always be about the reality of supporting, migrating, and otherwise pleasing users, and doing so by addressing those moments in which Microsoft’s products and services need to make said connections.

Phone 7 lost the number on that idea.

Image source: onesevenone

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/03/lost-number.html