If it weren't for those foul-mouthed, phone-bantering bears, I would never have considered HTC's EVO, the U.S.'s first 4G smartphone, which runs Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android operating system (OS). But after checking up on the specs, and seeing a feature set that puts Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) brand-new iPhone to shame, I was nearly ready to make the jump from my five-year-old Samsung Blackjack. Android runs on some pretty snazzy handsets these days, including the sold-out Droid Incredible from HTC, soon to be overshadowed by the Droid X from Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) , which may just salvage its mobile business.
But something stopped me from buying an Android -- it wasn't just that the area stores only carried the EVO clad in shiny, teenage-girl white. It was the research.
Sure, I expect to have to read a few product reviews and spec sheets before I commit a few hundred bucks (or thousands, considering family plans and long-term contract commitments) to a new smartphone, but enter the Android world, and you quickly descend into the circle of Hell reserved for forgers, cat-taunters, and overly open-source software.
The very strength of Android -- it's a pretty robust development platform, distributed freely -- is also its weakness. Android is just the guts of the OS. Carriers and handset makers determine the look and feel of the "skin," or the top level of the OS, and the customizability (or lack thereof) of that all-important home-screen real estate. Want to figure out what your new Android phone will actually do? Be prepared to spend hours trolling The Google to read reviews by a variety of tech bloggers who may or may not have actually seen the real phone. (Or head to the store and ask the bored teenager behind the counter.) There's not enough consistency across phone platforms for all but the most time-blessed netgeeks to make an informed choice.
I am a computer dork, so if that's too much for me, I know it's too much for the average consumer.
And that's where Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) has an opportunity with its upcoming Windows Phone 7. This is a completely new-looking phone OS, and a big philosophical departure for Microsoft. Microsoft's current phone OS died not because it wasn't capable, but because it encouraged carriers and handset makers to create horrible, Frankenstein operating system skins bloated with junkware, unfixable home pages, and impossible-to-ascertain feature sets. This time around, Microsoft will dictate much more tightly what the handset must do, how the OS must run, and what apps may do. Sound familiar? Sure, it sounds like Apple (though you won't be required to put an insipid sticker in your car's rear window.)
Say what you will about the iPhone: I have real work to do, so I'm not interested in a screen full of meaningless app chicklets. But at least if I got an iPhone I would know exactly what I would be getting -- or not getting. Its selling point is familiarity and consistency, and that's what consumers seem to really want in a smartphone these days. Android phones cannot make that claim.
Customers wandering into the phone aisle might say they "want the one with the higher geebees," but they crave predictability and freedom from having to think too much. (This also explains the popularity of unholy travesties like Chili's and Keanu Reeves.)
If Microsoft can deliver this sameness in a phone OS, it would have a chance with Windows Phone 7. That's not a shot to top Apple or derail Android, but an opportunity to gain back some of what it once claimed in the market.
But time is short, Mr. Softy. The expected "Holiday" launch date for Windows Phone 7 is killing my curiosity -- even though I know that this new phone OS promises features that aren't provided by either Apple or Android, like tight Microsoft Office integration, an enhanced social networking functionality incorporating the popular Xbox Live platform, and Microsoft's highly underrated Zune software and OS (which makes iTunes look like the same lame, slow, spreadsheet it was at launch a century ago).
If Microsoft can remember its mistakes, and Google dooms itself to repeat them, Mr. Softy may just get his foot back in the door of the smartphone war. If not, the future probably belongs to Appleheads.