I’ve said before that the number one innovation in Windows Phone is that Microsoft, in rethinking the smart phone, has adopted a new user experience model that is not app-oriented as is the iPhone (and, for that matter, Android). That is, on the iPhone, when the user wants to do something, they need to remember which app it is that will get that thing done. So if you want to see what your friends are up to, on the iPhone, you can manually visit different apps from Facebook, MySpace, or whatever. You install them. You remember them. You use them. Oh, and you update them. Manually.
The Windows Phone approach is different. Yes, there will be discrete apps. But Microsoft has engineered the OS to include a new super-app called a hub (or “panoramic experience”) that can aggregate content from multiple sources. So when you want to keep up with the people who are important to you, you just visit the People hub, which aggregates updates from Facebook, MySpace, Windows Live, whatever … all in a single location. Photos works the same way. So do other hubs.
Microsoft was only able to make this conceptual leap by starting over, and it was only willing to start over because it has failed so badly in the mobile market. In fact, one could make the argument that had Microsoft not been so thoroughly battered by RIM in the business market and by the iPhone in the consumer market that it would have simply shipped a me-too Windows Mobile 7 release that, like Android, offers only minor functional improvements over iPhone. (Android has other differences that matter, of course, including a multi-vendor device strategy and an open source development model. But I’m referring here to a very specific thing.)
Apple, meanwhile, has established a thriving ecosystem for its “i” products via the iTunes Store, which now features music, movies, TV shows, apps (for iPhone, iPod, and iPad), podcasts, audiobooks, iTunes U educational offerings, and more. (Arguably, the “iBooks” stuff is part of this same ecosystem.) This ecosystem is now inarguably the number one reason to own any of these Apple products, since the competition is catching up functionally but will never match the strength of these offerings. Never.
But Apple is in a weird place too. It’s success comes with a dark side. Apple, like any other company, can’t easily innovate when it’s so successful. So we’re not going to see a wildly innovative iPhone OS 4 software update, we’re going to see features that its competitors have already implemented. When you’re a leader, you protect your position. You consolidate. You shore up your lead, and you fill in tiny holes, not make big leaps. (This partially explains the iPad, as well. It’s not a new kind of device but is rather a merging of the iPhone OS with a PC-sized form factor.)
This place is so weird, in fact, that Apple now highlights it’s apps-based approach as a benefit. This is odd to me because the in-out-in-out app experience on the iPhone is arguably now the weakest part of this system, and the most old-fashioned. (It’s like MS-DOS. Think about it.) And though the multitasking functionality that Apple is adding in OS 4 will somewhat mitigate the need to constantly jump back out to the home screen to re-find an app you were just using, it doesn’t actually change the usage model that much at all. It’s evolution, not revolution.
Here’s how Steve Jobs makes lemonade out of this problem. In this past week’s iPhone OS 4 announcement, he said…
When you look at a mobile device–a phone–it’s not like the desktop. On the desktop, search is where it’s at [with regards to advertising]. That’s where the money is. But on a mobile device, search hasn’t happened. Search is not where it’s at. People aren’t searching on a mobile device like they do on the desktop. What’s happening is that they’re spending all their time in apps. When people want to find a place to go out to dinner, they’re not searching. They’re going into Yelp. They’re using apps to get to data on the Internet.
Now, this was obviously a dig at Google, since it came during his explanation about why iAd was needed on the iPhone. But what it really is, is a tacit admission that the iPhone’s app-based approach has hooked users, yes, but also trapped them in their tunnel-visioned, single-function worlds. On the iPhone, you can’t search for a restaurant. (Unless you want to use a web browser, you frickin’ Luddite.) You must think about which app you have for that–Yelp–and then use that. You’re doing the work, not the phone.
Folks, that’s not a strength, it’s a limitation, especially if what you care about is users (i.e. “us”). And while there is no “Restaurant” hub coming on Windows Phone, anyone could make one, and instead of being specific to just one service, it could aggregate content from many services. So you wouldn’t think, OK, which app helps me find restaurants? (And can’t I search for such an app? How do I know to use Yelp? What if something better comes along??)
(And yes, any developer could make a restaurant search iPhone. Which would still be an app. The beauty of hubs is how they appear in the user experience and expose information without requiring you to dive in.)
On Windows Phone, as it turns out, you’ll just search for a good restaurant. Using Bing. Which is an app, sort of, but a special app (integrated experience?) that’s tied to a hardware button and deeply integrated into the system. (And ruining Jobs’ argument about people not searching on phones.) But, again, on Windows Phone, restaurant search could be a hub. If you wanted such a thing.
When Apple was starting from scratch and doing its own take on new-to-them markets like MP3 players (iPod) and the smart phone (iPhone), it could be revolutionary. It had to be revolutionary. But now it is Microsoft being revolutionary, and for the same reason: They’re starting over. Sometimes, just dumping the past can lead to big, important steps. But when you’re just protecting a business … you get what Apple is doing right now.
These circumstances don’t diminish Apple’s accomplishments. In fact, they were inevitable. Apple got to where they are now for a reason. But if you’re wondering why I’m so excited by Windows Phone … This is part of it. Big bets–especially ones that benefit users–are exciting. Small bets that benefit a gigantic corporation and protect a dominant product? Not so interesting.
Side conversation: There’s a side-effect to starting over like this, and you can see this in many products, including the iPod, the iPhone, and even the Zune PC software: The first versions of these things are very simple (good) but are missing functionality (bad). Over time, the company making the product in question improves it by listening to feedback and adding features. And over time, the product gets more and more convoluted and complex as a result. Watching this past week’s iPhone announcement, I was thinking about how nice and even semi-obvious it was to tap the home button twice to bring up a list of the running apps. But come on: That’s only because I’ve gone through three generations of updates and understand how the iPhone works now. To a new user, that isn’t obvious at all. In fact, they’d only see that task switching screen by mistake at first. Eventually, products get so complex you have to work at overtly simplifying them (Windows 7) or exposing old features in new ways so that users will think they’re new (Office 2007/2010). And then eventually, you have to just start over. It’s like fresh skin beneath a scab. Scary but wonderful.
Side conversation #2: The Metro UI in Windows Phone is, I think, wonderfully applicable to a wide range of devices, from PCs to tablets to TV sets. Unlike, say, the iPhone OS, which was clearly designed for a tiny screen only. Just a thought.