Microsoft could lose the techies in their bid to win over consumers

Microsoft is obviously going "all in" to win over consumers with Windows 8, but will that drive the tech savvy away?

Microsoft is obviously going "all in" to win over consumers with Windows 8 for the tablet/laptop/desktop and with the evolving iterations of Windows Phone. Next week, I'll focus more on the former since by that time millions of people are expected to download the consumer preview that's reportedly being released on February 29. This week, I'll focus a little more on Windows Phone and the newly announced Nokia Lumia 610 that's being shown at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona this week.

What both have in common is a target audience that I've heard some refer to as the "lowest common denominator" — consumers who prize simplicity above all else. That simplification of a previously more complex user interface can be seen in the Metro tile-based UI on which Microsoft is betting the farm for all the company's operating systems (even, to an extent, the server products).

Keep it simple, stupid

We've all heard (and probably said) that phrase. Making things more complicated than they need to be is a design mistake that frustrates users, and Microsoft has certainly been guilty of doing that at times in the past. How many times have we tromped through a long list of steps, sometimes involving several different configuration interfaces, to accomplish something that should be a simple task?

Users of Apple products have long touted "simplicity" as one of the primary reasons they made that choice. For a long time, Microsoft could safely ignore Apple's advantage in that respect because the Mac's historical market share (well under 10%) indicated that simplicity simply wasn't all that important to most people.

Then along came the iPhone, and later the iPad, and it seemed simplicity's time had come. When I asked my friends why they bought iDevices — particularly when those devices were more expensive than competing products — the most common answer was "It's so easy to use."

And it is. When I initially got an iPad, I was impressed. There was very little learning curve; setting up an email account was (unlike with many desktop email clients) quick and simple; it just worked. It was only after I used it for a few months that its limitations began to loom larger until I realized that it was just too simple to do the things that I wanted and expected to be able to do with a computer — which, after all, is what a tablet really is.

Keeping it simple inevitably, to some degree, also keeps it stupid.

What we sacrifice for simplicity

For most ordinary consumers — people who don't have much in the way of technical skills and don't want to have to develop any — that works fine. But for the techie crowd — those who like to "fiddle," those who flirt with building their own systems, those who want to fine-tune the look and behaviors of their computers to fit their own preferences — not so much. For them, the inability to do something as basic as setting a custom graphic for the home screen background or changing the color scheme to something other than a handful of (frankly unattractive) colors is maddening.

Techies (or nerds or geeks or whatever you want to call them) are independent sorts. We don't like being told what to do, and we don't like being dictated to. We hate having our choices limited for what seems like arbitrary reasons. And we especially hate it when something that we already had is taken away from us.

We've had a love/hate relationship with Windows for a long time. Sure, we hate blue screens of death and enigmatic error messages and features that work fine on one machine but not on another (or fine today but not tomorrow on the same machine). But we love all the flexibility that we have, to do things our way. And Windows' market share on the desktop indicates that those who use desktop computers (increasingly the more technically minded computer users) are more than willing to sacrifice simplicity for freedom of choice.

Is this the future?

I've been looking forward to this year's Mobile World Congress (MWC) to see what's coming up in the world of smartphones in general and to find out what's in the pike from Nokia, in particular. I've liked the Windows Phone OS since it debuted two years ago at MWC 2010. But I've been waiting (and waiting) for someone to come out with a Windows Phone that would give me enough of what I want and already have with Android to make me switch.

When Microsoft announced their partnership with Nokia a year ago (February 2011), I had high hopes. I admired Nokia's high-end Symbian smartphones like the N95 and N8, and I thought the two companies could do great things together. When Nokia released their first Windows Phone models last October, they looked promising. The sleek, slim, squared design of the Lumia 710 and 800 and the vibrant colors of the handsets blew the iPhone right out of the water in the looks department.

However, they didn't have all the features I wanted and have come to depend on in my smartphone, such as a dual-core processor, a high-resolution display, a really big screen, and, perhaps most importantly, 4G LTE connectivity). A comparison of the specs and features of the Lumia 800 with those of the Galaxy Nexus, iPhone 4S, and Droid RAZR shows the Windows Phone lagging behind in many respects. It was a good start, but it wasn't enough to get my business.

When I saw the Lumia 900 at CES, I got even more excited. It sported the over-four-inches big screen I wanted (previously only available in the HTC Titan), with about the same amount of actual screen real estate as the Galaxy Nexus (whose virtual buttons eat up some of its 4.65-inch display). Although it still doesn't measure up to top Androids like the Nexus in terms of processor (single core 1.4GHz vs. dual core 1.2GHz), RAM (512MB vs. 1GB), and storage (16GB vs. 32GB), it's a very nice phone. It moves Windows Phone in the right direction.

So when WMC 2012 opened this week, I was ready for Nokia to wow me.

I wasn't wowed

Instead of a powerful Lumia 1000 with all the bells and whistles, Nokia led with the Lumia 610 — a "more affordable" (read: cheap, low-end) Windows Phone. With 8GB of storage (and no expansion option), 256MB of RAM, and a 3.7-inch 800x480 screen, it's pretty underwhelming. Some folks over at eWeek think, and I agree, that this is a big gamble.

Oh, I get that Microsoft and Nokia want to compete with the low-end Android phones that are helping that OS gain a large percentage of the phone market share. Going after that market makes sense. I'm just disappointed that we still don't have anything that competes effectively with the Droids on the other end of the scale. Because if that doesn't happen, Microsoft will lose the loyalty of all those techie-type people who used Windows Mobile for years — for good. I guess the real question is: Do they care?

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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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