Microsoft, don't screw the pooch

In late November, I opined why Microsoft is in trouble. A couple of conversations I had over Thanksgiving led me to believe there are tons of misconceptions about Microsoft consumer products, such as: Windows Phone is dead and Windows PCs are nothing but junk.

But I think the company can correct these problems by aggressively taking action in several key areas: Windows 8 hardware requirements, Windows 8 and Windows Phone marketing, synchronization and natural user interfaces.

Windows 8 Hardware Requirements

Microsoft has a perception problem about Windows PCs being cheap -- and that's not just price -- and that the only quality computers made today come from Apple. This sentiment is a falsehood, and there is a category in the PC realm that competes quite strongly with Apple in the quality arena at the high-end.

For Microsoft to overcome negative perceptions, they will need strict hardware requirements for Windows 8 PCs. Looking at recent ultrabooks, I believe Microsoft is off to a good start here. Going forward, Microsoft should set a high bar for Windows 8 PCs. I personally believe that Microsoft should hold accountable any OEM that wants to develop a Windows 8 device, whether or not it has a logo Why? Unless Microsoft plans to explain to consumers what this logo actually means, I don’t believe many people will care. They simply do not know that the sticker on a PC means anything significant.

If consumers know they can pick up any Windows 8 device and have confidence, regardless of form factor, that it will operate the same, this will go a long way towards removing the notion that all PCs are junk.

Marketing

Apparently Microsoft just laid off a ton of people in their marketing group. I hate to see anyone lose their job. However, I hope it wasn’t all for nothing. Hopefully this is a sign that Microsoft realizes their marketing for some needs improvement. Windows Phone is a perfect example. In January, BetaNews broke the  story about Microsoft planning a massive Windows Phone marketing push; I have not seen anything yet.

The NFL playoffs was a great opportunity to launch a Windows Phone ad campaign. What did we see? Apple and Samsung dominating commercial breaks for nearly every game. The aggressive marketing appears to be working as recent financial results reflect. Analysts report that Apple sold 37 million smartphones in Q4; Samsung 36 million.

Microsoft needs to be careful as they plan their upcoming marketing strategy. Consumers don’t really care that much about specs, because they don’t always know what 1.5GHz means. Take 4G LTE, for example: iPhone sold well without it. Over the weekend, a Saturday Night Live Verizon LTE commercial spoof showed how confusing LTE can be.

So instead of telling us specs, Microsoft should show us how Windows Phone can actually make our lives better. Tell us how Local scout will actually help us find a better pizza restaurant. Tell us how the voice features can help us find a move theater in the area. Tell us how Office can help me get work done while getting an oil change on my car. Make us believe that if we don’t get a Windows Phone we’re losers.

If Microsoft wants the new Nokia Lumia 900 to be any sort of success in this country, they have to market the daylights out of that phone. If the phone is launching in March, we should already be seeing commercials praising its benefits like I mentioned above. A low price point at launch is a great start and it definitely piques interest. But the time to start talking about the phone is not after it launches, it’s now. Now is also the right time to announce bundles: Get a free Xbox with your Lumia purchase; switch from iPhone or Android, and Microsoft will pay your contract penalty. These would be great ways to jumpstart device sales in the United States. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t see three or four Windows Phone ads during an evening of TV watching.

My Data Everywhere

Some time ago, Joe Wilcox called sync the killer app for mobile devices. I think he is spot on. From what we know so far, Microsoft is already planning massive upgrades to their SkyDrive service, which will allow many documents to be synced between the PC, phone and TV (Xbox). If Microsoft can successfully execute on this, they will have achieved something that even Apple's iCloud cannot yet accomplish. I believe the following scenarios would be sure winners:

  • Allow my entire documents folder to be synced to my SkyDrive. So that any device in which I log on with my Live ID will automatically see those files.
  • Allow my music playlists to be syncable. I should be able to access the same playlists from my PC, phone or Xbox. Add a SkyDrive app to the Xbox to make this possible.
  • Sync my photos to the phone (this already works) and Xbox. Why is there no SkyDrive app?
  • Sync should allow me to easily own Windows 8 devices in multiple form factors and still have access to my data.
  • Give me the ability to shoot a photo, video or song from my PC to the phone, phone to Xbox, or PC to Xbox. Microsoft already does this with Windows Phone to Xbox, although in severely limited capacity. Rumor has it that there may even be an Xbox companion app for Windows 8. Let’s hope it enables more functionality.
  • I can already use my phone to control my Xbox, how about taking it a step further and allowing me to speak commands into my phone that Kinect will understand. Kinect does not work well when there are many people in a room talking.
  • Skype should allow for video communication regardless of device -- PC, phone or Xbox. I should be able to use my phone to make a video call to someone who can answer the call on their Xbox or PC. Microsoft can also take this a step further and allow device-to-device Skype calling. A parent can use their Windows Phone to call their kid's Xbox to tell them to clean their room before Grandma arrives.
  • Allow real-time multiplayer gaming between the PC, phone and Xbox. This should work with key games. Microsoft has already demonstrated some of this.
  • All of this should be done in a way that is seamless and doesn’t require consumers to have to install anything, or go through lengthy and confusing setup processes. Just like on Windows Phone, I should be able to enter my Live ID and everything should be there or at least start syncing.

NUI NUI NUI

Microsoft has a big head start in this area. Kinect should be in everything: tablets, desktops, phones and TVs through some cheaper Xbox set-top device. I know people balk at the idea of gesturing in front of a monitor while sitting at a desk. But gesturing is not the only aspect of a new user interface (NUI).

Talk and touch are just as important. Imagine you’re in a kitchen handling poultry. The last thing you want to do is touch your phone when it rings. NUI is great for this scenario because it allows the user to send a voice command or gesture over the device to have it respond.  A technology does not have to be used every day to be valuable; it just needs to work when it’s needed.

Conclusion

This year has the potential to be the biggest in Microsoft history -- there are so many exciting products in the pipeline. It would truly be sad for the big software underdog to screw-the-pooch and lose out to its competitors in the consumer space. Marketing, sync and NUI are, in my opinion, key execution areas if Microsoft wants to get our attention and win the hearts of consumers. What do you think are the key areas Microsoft needs to execute on to win the hearts of consumers -- or do you think it’s already a lost cause?

Robert Johnson is a user interface developer specializing in the user experience (UX) of .NET-based web applications. He has been working in some form of web development and graphic design for 14 years. He loves technology in general, particularly that of Apple, Google and Microsoft. He is a Betanews reader.

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