Windows Phone 7: When Will Consumers Decide It’s Time?

Malcolm Gladwell brought the concept of the “tipping point” into the mainstream with his 2002 book of the same name. Among his many brilliant examples was that of the fax machine and its slow (and then very fast) rise in popularity.

When there wasn’t anyone to fax to, very few people bought fax machines, and the numbers grew at a crawl as potential buyers shied away from making the investment. But once the technology hit a critical mass, instantly a fax machine was a mandatory item for business and personal communications – if you were serious about reaching your customers, you had to be in that market. Two decades later, we’re still trying to figure out which new technologies to bet on, which warrant wait-and-see, and which are the bombs to avoid completely.

Microsoft’s Windows Mobile spent a pretty astonishing 10 years in that highly undesirable third category. Bad hardware + worse software = a terrible product. Among marketers and digital professionals, there was a sure way to identify Microsoft staff members – they were the only ones carrying a Windows Phone.

But all that changed in late 2010 when Windows Phone 7 was released. For the first time, it wasn’t cobbled together, underpowered, or behind the times. It was…kind of awesome. It wasn’t a “me too” product that copied the successful iPhone (a fair criticism of Google’s Android, the other big competitor). Microsoft’s “Metro” UI, also on the Xbox and coming soon to the desktop with Windows 8, makes the screen look and feel modern. “Live Tiles” brings a snacking level of data forward, providing huge value from a quick glance at the home screen.

Microsoft has been picky about its hardware partners and has made sure that the new software doesn’t end up in flimsy plastic housings. In fact, it’s done Android one better by providing a variety of form factors while ensuring there are no duds. The new Nokia Lumia 900 has made it even more compelling.

Windows Phone 7 is just a great phone – take my word for it. Actually, according to the sales data, the vast majority of the people reading this will have to take my word for it, because hardly anyone is actually using these great devices. At this point, no one’s arguing that it’s a bad phone – good luck trying to find a negative review on it, even from Apple and Android fanboys. Industry experts see strong growth for the platform; some actually predict it will pull even with the iPhone by 2014.

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The number of Windows Phones sold varies widely, depending on who you believe, from as low as 3.5 million to as high as 11 million.

But however you measure it, Windows Phone 7 is currently in that precarious “tipping point” position: when will marketers and consumers decide it should become a mainstream platform?

It’s pretty well established that the main thing holding Phone 7 back is apps – or lack thereof. Today, the Windows Phone Marketplace has over 70,000 apps, which is certainly more than you’d ever need (most people have about 18, on average), but a quick look through the Windows Phone Marketplace reveals that a surprising number of them are of the “scantily-clothed model” sort. This kind of app is tonnage – simple and not particularly engaging.

While these eye-candy apps are expected to be absent from the chaste Apple App Store, they’re not even near the top at Google Play, the Android app store. That signals to me that when there are more interesting options users will choose something other than lowest-common-denominator content like “HD Babes Premium.”

Here’s hoping that Microsoft itself will continue to develop and improve its own apps. For instance, some amazing new features for Skype could roll out to Phone 7 first and give those users something to crow about. Microsoft Office could continue to evolve and be seamless on Phone 7, providing a compelling set of tools for business users. Some initial demos like the one below show how Microsoft’s phone can integrate with Xbox Kinect to provide a value add for customers. Every Windows Phone should come with these apps pre-installed; it would be a great way to create market share.

You’ve got to give Microsoft credit: it’s not just waiting around for apps to grow organically from third parties. It’s doing its best to jump on the scale and get things tipping its way as fast as possible. For example, The New York Times recently reported that Microsoft is paying developers to put apps in the Windows Marketplace, and it’s a smart move.

So far, the money is going toward the tent-pole apps – the Zyngas, Rovios, and PopCaps of the world. These are the companies that produce most of those 18 apps that the average person has on their smartphone; and you can be sure that by the end of 2012, Microsoft too will have all of the most popular apps.

Smaller developers aren’t getting this kind of velvet rope treatment – at best, Microsoft is using swag and free phones to keep them in the game. But, if they hit it big with an app, you can bet they’ll get Microsoft’s interest, and fast.

In fact, until we have a breakthrough app on Phone 7, users won’t have compelling reasons to switch. There’s a real opportunity here for developers to stand out from the crowd and get recognized. Getting featured in the iTunes Store is getting tougher and tougher – yes, there are more end-users, but there’s also much fiercer competition – but an inventive Microsoft Phone app could get real uptake from grateful users.

As a marketer, I’m incredibly excited for Phone 7 to catch on, since it’s shaping up to be the most advertiser-friendly of the big three smartphone platforms. But until we hit the tipping point, that’s a column for the future.

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