Microsoft is missing the mark and foregoing an opportunity to win customers away from the real competition — Google.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about why I think Microsoft should stop emulating Apple if the company wants to build a bigger market share in the mobile space and keep customers happy in the desktop domain where they already dominate.
It's understandable that the top folks at Microsoft see Apple as their main competitor. After all, Apple is the one that last year surpassed Microsoft in market capitalization. Apple is the one that ran all those nasty but clever commercials directly comparing its suave, cool Mac guy to the fumbling, bumbling PC guy.
Heck, Microsoft and Apple have been direct competitors since Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were nerdy kids fighting over who could best copy the ideas they got from Xerox PARC. (If you're too young to remember those days, kick back with some popcorn and spend an evening with The Pirates of Silicon Valley.)
But, I think in focusing on Apple, Microsoft is missing the mark and foregoing an opportunity to win customers away from the real competition, and — let's face it — that's Google.
Apple users are a lost cause
Now, before the lynch mob comes for me over that headline, let me explain what I mean. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general Apple fans tend to be "true believers." They really and truly believe that the house that Jobs built makes products that are superior in every way to the lowly offerings of other technology companies. That makes them an extraordinarily loyal bunch.
No matter how great a Microsoft product is, you aren't going to be able to convince most hardcore Apple fans to even try it out, much less switch. They feel the same contempt for Linux and Android. If it is not magical and revolutionary (or even if it is, but it doesn't have the Apple logo on it), they don't want to be bothered with it.
Apple products are different. You either love those differences or you don't. Those who do are going to be sticking with them. Those who don't are already using something else — and if that something else isn't a Microsoft product, it's probably made by Google.
Google users are more pragmatic
I know a lot of people who love their Android phones, but I've never heard any of them say "I would never buy a phone that's not Android" (whereas I've heard many iPhone lovers proclaim their undying devotion). There are undoubtedly some Android loyalists, but in general I think those who use Google's products tend to be more open to trying new things and will go with whatever works for them, without regard for brand loyalty. I think most of those who are using Google products can be won over if Microsoft creates a product that does the job better.
Google is giving people what they want
Google is doing well right now because they're giving a whole lot of people the functionalities and features they want. Android was able to overtake the iPhone because it provided some key things that Apple wasn't giving its users:
Google knows that one size doesn't fit all, and they licensed their phone and tablet operating systems to many different vendors that could add their own touches, use different hardware designs, and otherwise create Android devices that aren't all just alike. While this so-called fragmentation has been a favorite point for Android critics, the stunning success of the Android phone platform (and the inroads that are beginning to be made by Android tablets) attests to the fact that many, many users want choice.
Microsoft is trying to play "best of both worlds" here, licensing the OS to different vendors but exerting a lot of control over what they can do with it. That middle-of-the-road approach may prove to be a good one; it certainly beats Apple's "one design to rule them all" model.
I choose Android over the iPhone and Windows Phone because I have more freedom to do what I want. I can install apps that I download from the Web as well as those I get in the Android Market. I can hook my phone up to my computer via USB and transfer files. I can change the look of my home screens to suit my preferences and mood. I can't do any of that with a Windows Phone.
If Microsoft were competing only with Apple, RIM, and Symbian in the mobile phone market, I would be using a Windows Phone right now. But because I have the option to get an Android smartphone and operate outside the walled garden, I do.
Let's broaden our focus from just phones and look at some of Google's other offerings. The company has its fingers in so many pies, it's hard to keep track, and (like Microsoft) they have a bad habit of sometimes rolling out products and then abandoning them if they don't catch on quickly. But they're constantly adding new features to make for more functionality.
Let's take Google Voice, for instance. Why doesn't Microsoft have a service like that? Sure, you can get similar functionality with Lync — if you have a corporate Lync server or subscribe to Office 365. But if they're serious about the whole phone thing, they should offer phone users a service that lets them consolidate their phone numbers, switch calls from one phone to another during a call, and (my absolute favorite part of Google Voice) transcribe voice mail messages to text email messages.
The irony is that those transcriptions are often not very good, especially if the speaker has a foreign accent or nonstandard dialect. If Microsoft could do the same thing but do it better, they could woo me and others away from Google Voice to their own service.
How to compete
Competing with Google requires a different strategy from the one used to compete with Apple. It means being more open and less controlling. It means embracing user choice and customization. In other words, it means going back to some of the design philosophies that made Windows successful in the past.
Windows Phone 7 (and possibly Windows 8) seems to be headed in the opposite direction. However, it doesn't mean just going back to business as usual. It means thinking big and taking chances — something that Microsoft has done with the new Metro UI.
To successfully compete with Google, Microsoft should find a way to combine what's best about the Apple way (big, bold, innovative ideas), what's best about Google (freedom, choice, openness) and what's best about Microsoft itself (patience, persistence, the ability to keep fine-tuning until it's right). It's pretty simple, really: Take a look at the services and products Google is offering, and do it better. That's how to win over those who are carrying Android phones, using Google Apps, communicating via Gmail, managing their phones and voicemail with Google Voice, and so forth.