At the CTIA Wireless conference in Las Vegas yesterday, I met with Mike Wehrs, Director of Technology & Standards for Microsoft’s Mobility Division. I felt somewhat like Michael Moore chasing down Roger Smith; not that Mr. Wehrs was avoiding me and certainly not so I could chastise him by proxy for any of Microsoft’s past indiscretions. More so because I was in search of the answer to one fundamental question. And when Mr. Wehrs began our short meeting with a proud pronouncement, that the Motorola Smartphone, based on the Microsoft Smartphone platform, was available immediately through AT&T Wireless in the United States, I had only one question: What took so long?
After all, it’d been three years since I flew to Seattle to attend a press briefing by Microsoft on its upcoming Smartphone platform and the exciting new wave of intelligent cellular telephones it said was being built around it. At the time I was duly impressed, although in retrospect Microsoft’s demonstrations consisted mainly of a single prototype device (which it claimed cost more than $1 million) built in its labs. Still, I thought Microsoft was on to something. It obviously understood that the key application of a phone, whether it be your typical “dumb” phone or a newfangled one with advanced data features, is voice communications. They understood that any additional feature must be as simple and easy-to-use as it is to pick up a phone and dial a number. And they also understood that this meant no stylus.
What I wondered at the time was whether they could pull it off. For one thing, a cell phone is not a computer, and this would be their first foray into the world of phones. Plus, there’s a huge difference between voice and data, and no one had successfully married the two. However, my biggest concern was whether Microsoft would be able to find anyone in the telecommunications space that would want to play with them. Would the handset manufacturers shun them? Would the carriers avoid them too? I had more questions than answers.
I confessed to Mr. Wehrs that I was somewhat skeptical of Smartphone, given its delays (as well as insider buzz about its penchant for lockups), and was curious as to why it had taken all these years to get a product to market in the U.S. He admitted that things hadn’t worked out exactly as they’d hoped. For one thing, Wireless Data networks didn’t proliferate at quite the rate they’d expected. Also, battery technology seemed to drag its feet. And Mr. Wehrs admitted that Microsoft had underestimated the difficulty in switching between voice and data modes.
But now, five years since it first developed its Smartphone plans, Microsoft’s bet that Moore’s Law would prevail, and that fast processors, color screens, advanced batteries and ubiquitous Wireless Data networks would make Smartphone a success, may just pay off. I wondered whether the Smartphone delays have left a bad taste with consumers. Mr. Wehr remarked that as long as you provide a compelling vision with tangible proof points along the way, consumers will understand. We’ll soon see. The Motorola Smartphone will be its first major test and we’re interested to see if the wait was worth it.