Windows Phone’s Purely Symbolic Triumph

Published on Author Eli Fennell


Windows Phone will rise and Android will be laid low!  At least, that’s the strange and unfounded conclusion some hyperbolic journalists and fans (including a few employed by Redmond) have arrived at after Apple’s strong victory against Samsung in court.
A couple Microsofties get to enjoy their moment to gloat on Twitter, but when the dust has settled, it almost certainly gains them little to nothing.  Yes, Microsoft has a patent truce with Apple, and so Windows Phone might be the safer choice, unfortunately consumer technology isn’t a market where playing safe is necessarily a winning strategy.  Every OEM wants to be safe from lawsuits, but none of them are, and taking a risk of being sued may be well worth it for the gains.
Even if Judge Koh tripled the damages and her verdict survived all appeals intact, which is probably unlikely, Samsung would owe a total of about $3bn, and absorb some other costs relating to injunctions and working around patent claims.  All told, the figure might amount to a quarter’s worth of profits for Samsung at most, far less than Android (which accounts for over 70% of their profits) has earned them.  Nor will the damages or costs erase their success: the Galaxy S III will sell tens of millions, and next year’s Galaxy S IV or whatever they call it will probably sell even more.
Nor is it at all clear that suits against other OEM’s would follow the exact same course as the Apple v. Samsung case.  No other OEM uses TouchWiz; odds are no other OEM has internal memoes lamenting the overt similarity of some products to iPhone and iPad, or emails from Google employees warning of similarities.  This wasn’t a “cookie cutter” verdict, as some have suggested… it can’t just be copied and pasted onto any and all other Android OEM’s in its entirety.
Worse for Microsoft is that Google has effectively aped their strategy of having many partners, who hold each other in a sort of “Mexican stand-off”.  If only one OEM made Android, they might effectively start to shift people to a new OS while letting Android gradually languish.  The fact that they’re all competing with each other makes that a lot trickier.  If Samsung stopped focusing on Android, the risk is that their opponents wouldn’t, and would eat up Samsung’s market share, while there is no certainty Samsung would hold or grow their market share with the new product.
If Samsung killed their popular Galaxy S series of devices, for example, and there was no GS IV, then HTC, Sony, Motorola, and others would work hard to fill that gap with their own flagships, and would probably succeed, especially as Google would likely offer one or more of them the contract for a Nexus and work very hard together to make it a success as they’ve done for Asus.
It also doesn’t hurt that Android’s open source nature makes it far better suited to experiment with than Windows Phone.  With each player in the game trying to find any advantage over the others, any new feature that can be implemented right now, like a new type of camera technology, or some new software feature, instead of whenever some outside company gets around to making their software compatible (if they ever do), is a potential gain, and having to wait to impliment it a potential loss.
Microsoft worked very hard, with Windows, to level the playing field, forcing OEM’s to compete largely on different specs of the same components (more RAM, bigger hard drives, etc…), bloatware, and on price.  They didn’t want one OEM being able to “run away” with the market through innovation, for fear they’d lose their leverage if that happened, although HP did emerge as the biggest player nonetheless.  Android, on the other hand, allows far more differentiation of both hardware and software.
Google knowingly took the risk that this could lead to a monopoly or monopsony on Android by a single OEM, and even forking, while using other forms of leverage to keep competition alive and their ecosystem intact, such as the Nexus contract and the advantage of co-marketing and early code access it brings (and is it any coincidence the current and former Android leaders were the first two companies to win the Nexus contract?).
For decades OEM’s “played it safe” with Windows, each one making roughly the same PC’s with slight differences from each other at best, because they had to, until an opportunity arose to break Microsoft’s grip and get back to doing what they wanted to do: experimenting with groundbreaking new ways of setting themselves apart from the competition, unencumbered by the restrictive terms Microsoft forced on them.
Windows was a godsend when OEM’s needed a rival for the Mac, but then became a crutch.  HP tried to break free with WebOS, and when they failed went screaming back to Microsoft to save them like a beaten dog dependent on its abusive master.  Android was a godsend when OEM’s needed a rival for iOS, but hasn’t become nearly the crutch Windows became, on the contrary its very oppenness, and Google’s mostly hands-off approach, have freed them to do amazing things they could never have done otherwise.
So go ahead and gloat, Microsofties, I respect that you believe in your product and are desperate for any sign of good news.  I’ll let you enjoy the moment, but do keep reality in perspective: right now, you’re no more an alternative to Android than Ubuntu is an alternative to Windows.  You might enjoy a bit more OEM love after this, but Android won’t be going away.  You’re a minor player, which has yet to establish a single flagship device that people anticipate the release of like an iPhone, a Galaxy S phone, or even a Nexus phone for that matter.
And while “there’s an app for that” if you own iPhones or Androids, almost regardless of what “that” is, and everyone knows this to be true and sees and hears it everywhere they go, too often there isn’t an “app for that” for Windows Phone.  No apps, no flagships, no particular benefit to the OEM’s or carriers beyond “playing it safe” or “having a viable third ecosystem”?  These are condolence prizes, Honorable Mentions at best.  Pop the champagne cork when you’ve done better with consumers than the mediocre success of the Nokia Lumia series, and don’t have to dump outrageous sums of money and huge discounts at it to do it.