If we’ve learned anything from Apple, it’s that pissing the right people off pays. The company isn’t afraid to take on Samsung, Motorola, or any of its other competitors, and is willing to go “thermonuclear” to take down a competitor’s product. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – its status as the world’s most valuable publicly-traded company, Apple isn’t afraid to come out with its fists swinging and make a few enemies.
Considering the fact that Apple’s iPhone business alone is worth more than Microsoft, it might be time for the latter company to take a page from its competitor’s playbook. With the announcement of its Surface tablet, Microsoft looked like it was ready to roll its sleeves up and take on the world. At the time, I wrote that “[b]y releasing Surface, Microsoft has turned these hardware ‘partners’ into competitors – one can only imagine how Microsoft plans to navigate those murky waters.” Now, three months later, the answer seems to be clear: it doesn’t.
Since the Surface’s debut, Microsoft has appeared at a number of its hardware partners’ announcements. Some of the company’s top executives have appeared during both Nokia and HTC’s events, expressing their excitement for the hardware and “showing off” its reportedly buggy and unfinished mobile operating system. The thinking seems to be that by showing up at these events, Microsoft can make it seem like Windows Phone devices are all equally worthy of the Redmond-based company’s love.
During the Surface announcement, Ballmer said, ”We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when hardware and software are considered together,” echoing a similar sentiment from many of Apple’s product announcements. Though Ballmer almost immediately followed that statement by saying that Microsoft would work with its hardware partners, his original statement seemed to be the corporate equivalent of “Look, we’ve got it from here. If our product – Windows – is going to be associated with yours, you’d damn well better be able to match or beat what we can build.”
The impression that I, and many others, got from Nokia’s event (before the camera controversy) was that Nokia had managed to pull that off. By tying its own services and applying its decades of experience to building the Lumia 920 and its little brother, the Lumia 820, Nokia made a lustworthy smartphone different from what anyone else was building. And then HTC announced its products which, if it weren’t for the huge HTC and Beats logos, would look like less-refined Lumia devices.
By showing up at each event, Microsoft was expressing an implicit endorsement of each announced device. There is no clear “winner,” or even some sense that Microsoft is going to put all of its efforts into its partnership with Nokia. “Look, the Lumia is great,” it seems to say, “and so is this phone, this phone, that phone, and probably every other phone announced.” Good luck trying to figure out which phone to buy, because Microsoft isn’t going to come out and say “this one.” Either Ballmer didn’t mean what he said about developing the hardware and software together and is happy to endorse whatever the company’s biggest partners make, or its definition of “working together” is “making a lot of these phones look eerily similar.”
Which would be fine, if that partnership with Nokia wasn’t in place, and Microsoft itself weren’t capable of producing great hardware. And it’s not like Microsoft is a stranger to entering a saturated market and attempting to differentiate itself – its Xbox console entered a market that only two companies, Nintendo and Sony, seemed to be able to profit from and beat those two companies to the latest hardware generation with the Xbox 360. The company can, despite the “soft” part of its name, build good hardware. And yet it seems to be happy with supporting every also-ran Windows Phone and hoping for the best.
Surface was supposed to change that. The company was on the verge of drawing a line in the sand that said “If you can’t beat us, don’t cross.” But that line has been all but erased. Instead of making a few enemies to create the best device for its customers, Microsoft is trying to make its friends happy, customers be damned.
[Update:] It looks like Nokia already got this memo, as the company has come out and slammed HTC’s phones itself with an official statement to The Verge:
Today is more good news for the Windows Phone ecosystem. While others may choose to tactically re-brand their products, Nokia is driving an industry-leading smartphone franchise – that we call Lumia — exclusively around Windows Phone. With Lumia, we are creating truly differentiated experiences like PureView imaging, location and navigation, wireless charging and Nokia Music. And we’re just getting started!”
Nokia’s head of marketing, Chris Weber, also took to Twitter to vent his frustrations (again, first reported by The Verge):
It takes more than matching color to match the innovation of the Lumia 920. #SwitchtoLumia
— Chris Weber (@CWeberatNokia) September 19, 2012
Happy to add a new Signature to the Windows Phone ecosystem – behind the Lumia 920. #SwitchtoLumia
— Chris Weber (@CWeberatNokia) September 19, 2012
See, Microsoft? That’s how you do it.