Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy V2 yet? If not, you should probably not read this and instead go make a sandwich or something. But if you have, then you probably got a good chuckle out of the ending where Peter Quill is handed a Microsoft Zune and told that its the big thing on Earth now. The joke of course is that the Zune is a relic that never really competed successfully against Apple’s iPod.
I will go on record here and say, unsurprisingly, that I owned not one but two Microsoft Zune’s back in the day. Its hard to imagine now, but it was vastly superior to the iPod video. The sound quality was excellent. It had a large rectangular 3 inch LCD screen (eventually HD capable.) It could receive and play actual radio stations. You could even share songs wirelessly with other Zune users if you ever actually met one. Whereas the iPod video had a small 2.5 inch square screen with unfortunate display quality at first, and it had none of the extra features. Everyone who owned a Zune loved it. But almost know one bought one. Eventually, despite its technological edge and its fanatic user base, it died as a product. Microsoft built a better toy, but it couldn’t compete with Apple’s marketing. Steve Jobs was a tech genius, sure, but there is no shortage of those in Silicon Valley. But what was important was that he was a Marketing genius. He, and by extension, Apple, knew what it took to inflame the marketplace and drive consumer demand.
Today I had what is turning into a recurring discussion for me about the Microsoft Phone. I love my Microsoft Phone. I like the large live tiles that show me my data at a glance. I like icons that are easy for my fat thumbs to tap on, unlike the tiny icons on the iPhone. I love that when its time to upgrade, I can walk into a Microsoft store and buy the phone outright for $300 rather than get a new lease contract from AT&T that will ultimately cost me $600 for the same phone. But I cant download any apps for it.
When Microsoft decided to tackle the phone market, rightfully seeing phones as a necessity to survive as our internet interactions evolve, they looked at the success Apple had and correctly deduced that without apps, the phone was nothing. It was the app marketplace in iTunes that really drove sales of the iPhone and gave birth to the smart phone future. So Microsoft dug deep into their pockets and promoted the crap out of app development in the developer community. There were SDKS made available, countless articles in magazine such as Visual Studio and MSDN and Dr. Dobbs, podcasts, marketing outreach at conventions, contests, school campus ambassadors, even raves. Everyone that could code was encouraged to write the next killer app. And that was the problem. Very few of us can write the next killer app. Its just not that easy or else every developer you meet would be a millionaire. Soon, the Microsoft App store was filled with stopwatches, image galleries, calculators and soduko puzzle solvers. Everyone who took a class or watched a video in turn uploaded their nauseatingly repetitive app to the Microsoft store.
Noticeably missing from the store were all the apps from the big companies. The banks ignored the platform. Game companies (besides MS themselves) ignored the platform. Starbucks, Amazon, you name it, if they had an app they turned their noses up at the Windows OS. Why spend precious resources on an untested market when the existing Apple market was already a license to print money? And because there were no good apps, few bought the phone and most of those who did ditched it for a new android when their contract was up. Even now, years later, the MS store is cleaned up, there are a lot of games and various different apps, but still I can’t snap a photo of my check and deposit it in the bank. I cant order my drink at Starbucks for pickup. I can’t summon a Lyft driver. I can’t get my free meal for registering at Pick Up Stix. Even now, when there are two other platforms instead of just one, and development tools exist to allow you to write apps for all three platforms simultaneously, companies shun Window App development like the plague. Why spend precious resources on a market that is failing? Its a vicious circle.
Microsoft has the largest community of developers, period. Most apps, specially in the business world are run on C# or VB.Net (with cobol and C++ coming in close after). We think, nuh-uh, because all of the brand name software we use was obviously written in low-level code like C++, but for every Photoshop or MS Word in use in business, there are probably 10 or 20 small desktop apps in a given company written to automate and help business processes specific to that company. There are literally millions of Access databases with VBA forms processing the data. The developer community is super important to Microsoft. But they are not the customers that Microsoft needed to target. Everyone uses a phone, not just developers. Your average person isn’t swayed by the fact that it is easy to write an app if they don’t know how to program in the first place. They want to buy something slick that does everything for them. As a consumer, I do too.
Microsoft instead should have been targeting the existing Companies. They should have gone to Wells Fargo and Bank of America, to Chipotle an Amazon, and the should have said, “Everyone uses your iPhone apps already. Now build apps for our phone and we will subsidize that development cost.” Rather than events on campuses for computer science students, they should have hosted parking lot sales for Nordstrom’s and Chili’s. They needed to get the everyday consumer interested in it. The development community didn’t need so much outreach because if they saw that MS Apps were a hit and fiscally rewarding, they would go out of their way to learn the platform regardless. And once users started to use their Windows Phone to deposit checks and read comic books, these Companies would have an existing customer base to incentivize continuing application development and refinement.
It seems that Microsoft is doomed to follow a predictable pattern. One, recognize someone doing something new and worthy and copy the idea. Two, greatly improve on it. Three fail to market it correctly. Four watch it wither on the vine and eventually discontinue it. They have done it with everything from Keyboards to Game Controllers to MP3 players, phones, and even the now overpriced surface tablets. I own stock in Microsoft. I develop my sites and apps in C#. I want them to do well, but some days I question if they can.