Windows Phone 7 is the best product Microsoft has built in a very long time.
Of course, building a great product — it could even be the best product in its category — never guarantees success. Microsoft benefited from that dynamic in the 1980s and 1990s when its operating systems were never the best software on the market but prevailed as the dominant platform in personal computing.
Timing, key partnerships, sales savvy, even geography can play an important role in a product winning a big share of the market. Oh, and one other factor: branding.
I'd argue that the number one factor that has torpedoed Windows Phone 7 is branding.
The bottom line is that Windows Phone 7 has been dismal failure in 2011, failing to even take a meager 2% of the smartphone market. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has admitted that Windows Phone 7 sales have been a disappointment and recently changed the leadership of the division.
While Ballmer and the rest of the tech industry have puzzled over why more people aren't buying Windows Phone 7 devices, the answer is almost too obvious to consider. The biggest thing that's wrong with Windows Phone 7 is Windows.
One of the reasons people love smartphones and tablets so much is that they aren't as complicated and confusing as the Windows computers that they've been using for years. Other than the small-but-rabid cadre of Windows enthusiasts, most people shudder when they think about having a phone that runs like Windows. The last thing they want is a device that locks up for no apparent reason, gradually gets slower over time, and is constantly getting bogged down by spyware, malware, and crapware.
Of course, Windows Phone 7 doesn't have any of those desktop Windows problems, but the burden and baggage of the Windows brand has brought the factor of guilt by association. The fact that Microsoft's earlier mobile attempt — Windows Mobile — was slow and confusing also doesn't help.
If Microsoft had jettisoned the Windows brand from its mobile product line, the devices could have competed on their own merits and attracted a lot more buyers. After all, the operating system itself is fluid and self-evident. It runs quickly and has a high-quality app ecosystem that is growing by leaps and bounds.
Imagine if Microsoft had followed its Xbox strategy and given the phone its own branding. In fact, Microsoft could have drawn on the popularity of the Xbox and used the name "Xphone" (which would have also playfully mocked Apple's "iPhone" a bit). The "Xphone" would have been better than "Xbox Phone" because not everyone is a gamer and a phone also needs to be able to do get work done — which Windows Phone 7 does (especially if you already use Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft Office, and Microsoft SharePoint), even though the device is primarily aimed at consumers. The "Xphone" would have been shiny and new, instead of looking like Microsoft trying to squeeze its way back into the market after the failure of Windows Mobile.
The other big problem Windows Phone 7 had was that its big hardware partners, Samsung and HTC, didn't take it seriously and ended up putting WP7 on their second class Android hardware. That's why Microsoft had to make the salty $1 billion deal with Nokia to get at least one big phone maker putting Windows Phone 7 on their most innovative hardware designs. However, Samsung, HTC, and Motorola (which passed on Windows Phone 7) certainly sensed that consumers weren't going to get excited about the Windows brand on a phone. Better branding like "Xphone" could have energized them.
I'm not saying that Microsoft would have leapfrogged Android and iPhone in 2011, but better branding could have turned a solid mobile product into a hotter commodity with phone makers and mobile carriers and grabbed at least 5-10% of the growing smartphone market.
Also, keep in mind that Microsoft will be heavily promoting the Windows brand when it launches its tablet strategy in 2012 with Windows 8. In fact, the success or failure of Windows 8 on tablets will be one of the most important things to watch in the tech industry in 2012. Unfortunately, the fate of Windows Phone 7 in 2011 could be a bad omen for Microsoft. Again, one of the main things people like about tablets is that they aren't PCs — specifically Windows PCs. It's hard to imagine many people getting excited about "going back to Windows" on a tablet. But, Xtablet? That might have been a different story.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.