Windows Phone’s Secret Weapon: Customization

Despite coming from one of the world’s most well-known tech companies,Microsoft, Windows Phone has a freakishly odd smartphone brandingproblem. From what I see out there, most consumers barely know what aWindows Phone is or how it works or why they might want one.

Businessusers tend to be more aware of it — particularly the PC laptop-totingones — but they often end up choosing an Android smartphone or even an iPhone instead.

There are a lot of reasons Microsoft is woefully behind insmartphone market share, but now that it can align its softwareand services with slick hardware that it can control, thanks to itsacquisition of Nokia, the company finally has a chance to createsomething meaningful for the mobile world.

So, from an unabashed Apple fan, why this? Why now?

Windows Phone’s Path

I just read the regular-reader-friendly transcript from an informal”Ask Me Anything” Q&A with Reddit Windows Phone fans in which Joe Belfiore,Microsoft vice president and manager for Windows Phone, wassurprisingly candid about the past, current and future state ofWindows Phone development.

In one paragraph, I think he nailed the only path forward forWindows Phone to carve out a little place in the mobile world and findreasonable success against iOS and Android — and it’s not apps, apps,apps.

Why not apps? Because Microsoft is slowly getting better apps.Apple likes to talk big numbers — there are more than 1million apps in the Apple App Store — but only a tiny percentage of thoseapps are being used by consumers in any relevant way. If Microsoftcontinues to invest in app creation and developer support, it’ll getenough of the good apps so that buyers won’t immediately dismiss aWindows Phone.

So what’s the big deal?

It’s All About Customization

The question posed on Reddit was, which feature would make peoplechoose a Windows Phone over competing platforms?

Belfiore’s answer: “Right now, it’s not ONE FEATURE. It’s the way the whole system isdesigned and what it’s about. We think WP is the MOST PERSONALSMARTPHONE — and that a combo of features, starting with live tilesand now Cortana, makes it even more personal. This is kind of a mantrafor the team — we’re serious about this. We’re balancing a unique,attractive visual appearance with letting the user customize it a ton.We really want your phone to feel like your ‘fingerprint’ … betterthan any other phone.”

He’s right on. In fact, he’s so right on that I sat up straight in mychair when I read this, turned off my Homedics back massager, and readthe passage again. Customization is more than a feature. It’s almost aworld view that Microsoft can embrace and use mercilessly in a widevariety of advertising programs.

Heck, can you imagine “I’m a WindowsPhone and I’m an iPhone” video ads that spoof the awesome old “I’m a PCand I’m a Mac” ads? The role would be reversed here: The iPhone wouldbe the stodgy, barely customizable dude, while the Windows Phone couldbe anyone cool — or even just morph to fit a mood.

Suddenly, consumers could place an attribute on Windows Phone –customization, and more to the point, themselves: me. IfMicrosoft can connect my identity with the phone I carryeverywhere — well, that would be a powerful accomplishment.

Right now, customization is about the exact opposite of what Apple is offering. As for Android, the competing manufacturers are so busy trying tocarve out their own little piece of the pie — and abide by Google’srules — that their ability to communicate complicated issues likeidentity and customization with a fresh interface and experience isnigh impossible.

Heck, they started using Android in the first place because they didn’t have any better ideas. So, yeah, while Android istechnically massively more customizable than iOS, the reality is thatit’s far beyond the reach of most consumers — and will continue to bedue to Android’s fractured existence. Just wait until Samsungbails in favor of managing its own destiny with the Tizen OS.

Meanwhile, back to Microsoft.

As for jealousy, I still can’t imagine a day when a Windows Phonecould dislodge me from my iPhone. Sure, I actually like the Live Tilesconcept and respect that Microsoft brought something fresh to themobile UI. I wish Siri were named Cortana and that Apple used hervoice (and likeness) and could therefore evoke fond memories of epicHalo gaming. I wish I could customize the look, feel, and placement ofboth apps and information I frequently access.

I would be happy if Apple would simply let me instantly launchthe Camera app by letting me push both the + and – volume buttons atthe same time with both thumbs. Go ahead, hold your iPhone horizontaland press the + volume button with your left thumb and the – volumebutton with your right thumb. What happens? Nothing. But what if thataction launched the built-in Camera app out of a sleeping iPhone?

Suddenly you’re holding your iPhone in a perfect position to snap aquick photo or take video. No more fumbling with the Home button,potentially unlocking your iPhone with Touch ID, and sliding thelittle camera app icon over. But isn’t that insecure? So sandbox theCamera app so that it only takes photos or video in this mode. Applecould conceivably figure this out and implement it, and it would be agreat feature that a user could choose to enable or disable.

Let’s take this idea a step farther: Would Apple ever . . . can youeven imagine this . . . let you choose which photo app –or any third-party app — to launch with a customizablephysical button press?

Would the DNA of Apple even let the company imagine such a customization idea?I have my doubts that it could happen any time soon.

So, while I hope Apple proves me wrong — take the idea andimplement it right away, please — I know that this is the sort ofcustomization idea that can be born from a team whose mantra is one ofcustomization.

If Microsoft can truly elevate customization — thenillustrate and align customization with a better, more fulfillingsmartphone experience — the company has a chance to climb its way intosecond place in the mobile device wars.

Chris Maxcer

TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at You can also connect with him on Google+.

1 Comment

  • One of the things I absolutely love with my windows phone is that i can have all or most of my apps on the main screen with all the info I need at a glance there. I can see how many emails I have, how many whasapp calls and messages, how many text messages , and all with the names of those that have sent me messages in any app.

    And even doing all of this on the main screen i can still see recent photos uploaded by family to Facebook or see who has uploaded YouTube videos in my favorites list, all before entering one app.

    Then on top of this i swipe right and have a list of every app on my phone, no searching across many screens and trying to find my favorites.

    But really the top feature of my phone is not even software related, it is the fact that i can use a dedicated button, no volume and two finger activation , just one finger press of one button and i can from the screen being in standby take a photo within 3 seconds.

    I have heard that MS might remove this button in the future and i can tell you if they do, I will be searching for another phone that does this, i don’t care what OS it has as long as i have this button, or i might just keep my windows phone for a few more years until i upgrade, that is how great a feature it is. It turns a Smartphone into a full featured camera and with three kids what more could i ever want as the main feature.

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