Terry Myerson, Microsoftâs vice president for phone engineering, works with a robot in a phone-testing lab at the companyâs offices in Redmond, Wash. Microsoft, long regarded as a company that made products lacking design flair, has surprised critics with its Windows Phone software.
Peter Yates / New York Times News Service
REDMOND, Wash. â" âGorgeous,â raves The Huffington Post.
âBest-looking smartphone operating system in the industry,â gushes Slate.
âFar superior to most if not all the Android smartphones,â says TechCrunch.
Sounds like the usual adulation for a gadget from Apple. In fact, theyâre actually accolades for a new product from Microsoft.
Exactly. Long ridiculed as the tech industry dullard, Microsoft actually has a hit, at least with the technorati. It is the cellphone software called Windows Phone â" and they need it to be a blockbuster here at Microsoft Central.
Yes, Windows and Office products are ubiquitous and highly profitable. But theyâre about as inspirational as a stapler. While the likes of Apple have captured our imaginations with nifty products like the iPhone, Microsoft has produced a long list of flops, from smart wristwatches to the Zune music player to the Kin phones.
Steve Jobs used to deride Microsoft for a lack of originality. In his opinion, the company didnât bring âmuch cultureâ to its products. With Windows Phone, though, Microsoft is finally getting some buzz.
âI am a devoted Apple fan â" I was in line for the iPhone,â said Axel Roesler, assistant professor for interaction design at the University of Washington in Seattle, but Windows Phone âstrikes me as quite different and an advance.â
Windows Phone, which began appearing in devices last fall, certainly stands out visually. It has bold, on-screen typography and a mosaic of animated tiles on the home screen â" a stark departure from the neat grid of icons made popular by the iPhone. While most phones force users to open stand-alone apps to get into social networks, Facebook and Twitter are wired into Windows Phone. The tiles spring to life as friends or family post fresh pictures, text messages and status updates.
Even so, relatively few consumers have been tempted, and sales have been lackluster. A big problem is that, initially, the handsets running Microsoftâs software, made by companies like HTC and Samsung, were unexceptional. Even more important, wireless carriers, the gatekeepers for nearly all mobile phones, have not been aggressively selling Windows phones in their stores. Most promote the iPhone and devices running Googleâs Android operating system.
And so Microsoft has struck a partnership with Nokia, and executives at both companies have high hopes that their handsets will catch on with consumers.
Bill Flora, one of the designers of Windows Phone, said the care that Microsoft took in designing its products had changed vastly since he joined the company out of art school in the early 1990s.
âNow, instead of 80 percent of its efforts being unenlightened, just 20 percent are unenlightened,â said Flora, who recently left Microsoft to form his own design firm in Seattle.
Setting a new path
The tale of how Microsoft created Windows Phone starts with the introduction of the iPhone, in 2007. To Joe Belfiore, now 43, an engineer who oversees software design for Windows Phone, that was the spark.
Once the iPhone exploded into the marketplace, Microsoft executives knew that their software, as designed, could never compete. So in December 2008, Terry Myerson, who had just taken over engineering for the mobile group, convened a meeting that members of his management team came to call the âcage match.â
With a prototype of a new Windows Mobile phone on a table, Myerson, a no-nonsense engineer, led a heated debate over whether any of the software could be salvaged. No one was leaving the room until the issue was resolved, he said.
Seven hours later, the meeting finally adjourned, after Myerson got a call from his wife saying a pipe had frozen at his home. By then, a consensus had emerged that there wasnât much technology worth saving. âWe had hit bottom,â said Myerson, who is now 39.
âThat frankly gives you the freedom to try new things, build a new team and set a new path,â he added.
The decision was to start from scratch, a move that had serious consequences. Not only did it delay a Windows phone, it gave Google an opening to woo Microsoft handset partners to Android.
Charlie Kindel, a longtime Microsoft manager who joined its mobile team in early 2009, compared the pain caused by starting over to the predicament of Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm in 2003 after it was it pinned under a boulder in the Utah desert.
âThis boulder comprised of Apple and BlackBerry rolled on our arm,â said Kindel, who left Microsoft last summer. âMicrosoft sat there for three or four years struggling to get out.â
Myerson also had to rebuild the mobile team â" and Belfiore was his first major hire.
Belfiore took over the mobile group in early 2009, just as designers were finishing up the earliest prototypes for Windows Phone. In those prototypes, Flora drew inspiration from the signs in airports and other transportation hubs. He borrowed the emphasis on clarity, clean typography and broadcast-quality transitions between screens from Zune, which he had worked on with Belfiore. The ideas gradually gelled into a software design language that Microsoft calls Metro.
Having a say in hardware
But there were challenges beyond design. Microsoft had to take a fresh approach to working with phone makers so it could have its slick new software function properly. Unlike Apple, Microsoft doesnât make its own hardware. Before it restarted its mobile strategy, Microsoft did little to ensure that its handset partners were putting its software on devices that could run it well.
No longer would that be tolerated. Microsoft gave its handset partners detailed specifications of the types of technical innards required, including processors with certain amounts of power and screen technologies. Handset makers grumbled about the rules, but the result was phones that ran better.
âItâs not just about software,â said Albert Shum, general manager of the design studio for Windows Phone. âItâs about the whole end-to-end experience.â
When senior executives got their first look at the software, Myerson said, there was âsome hesitancy.â Steve Ballmer, Microsoftâs chief executive, didnât like that the first screen that appeared after turning on the device contained oversized type that cut off the day of the week. (Wednesday showed up as Wed.) Revisions were made.
But the group was given its creative freedom. And the critics, at least, have approved the final results.
âIt looks like nothing weâve seen before from Microsoft,â said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, the technology research firm. âThe company is being somewhat bold and saying what worked for them in 1992 wonât work now.â
Still, last summer, Ballmer told Microsoft investors that he was disappointed with Windows Phone sales. In mid-December, he named Myerson, the engineering head, to take full control of the group. He charged Myerson with improving the Windows Phone advertising campaign and relationships with wireless carriers. A software update for Windows Phones in the fall added a number of improvements to the product, including basic editing functions like copy and paste.
But this year is crucial; it will show whether a respected product is enough to help Microsoft make up for lost time. Even if it feels good to be a favorite of tech critics for a change, Microsoft needs a blockbuster in the mobile business, not a cult hit.
âEntering the market so late with this experience has created some special challenges for us,â Myerson said. âI think if we were there earlier it would be different.â
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