It is kind of fun to watch from a distance young executives remake easily avoided mistakes because they feel the title they bought actually comes with the experience needed to do the job. Such is the case with Google’s current leadership, as they decided to create an Apple clone in Android without thinking through what Apple would do to them as a result. The US$1 billion judgment against Samsung is only the smallest tip of this iceberg of pain, which has phone OEMs flocking back to Microsoft in droves as I write this.
Windows Phone 8 isn’t a cheap copy of iOS, however, and that does mean it comes with a rather nasty cost of its own. But then Apple recently kicked in a surprising helping hand, and the result could be a major upset.
So, largely thanks to Google and Apple mistakes, Microsoft’s Windows Phone could end up as the only platform left standing.
How Google screwed up
You can almost picture what happened: Larry Page and/or Sergey Brin are having a discussion/argument with Steve Jobs about open-source software and Linux (both of which Jobs thought were idiotic), and Jobs is making it clear he thought they were naïve children. This forced a “We’ll show you” decision, and off Google went to create the Linux-based Android platform.
From their perspective, because they’d watched the Linux vs. Microsoft battle, software patents were unenforceable and Linux was invulnerable, because if it weren’t, Microsoft would have done what they’d threatened to do and sue it into extinction.
You have to love kids who would put a multi-billion-dollar corporation at risk just to prove a point, and off they went, clearly not considering that Jobs would see their move as a betrayal, and their doing it while their CEO was on Apple’s board as theft.
Jobs was not amused. Apple’s recent $1 billion judgment against Samsung, coupled with the licenses the Android OEMs had to sign with Microsoft, proved his point post mortem, and now the phone OEMs are running back to Microsoft.
But Microsoft is different—and massively so—with Windows Phone 8 creating a significant problem because the market has largely accepted the iOS user interface as delivered by both Apple and Google, and the market has never liked massive change. It doesn’t matter that the interface is more advanced or different once the market has spent the time to learn another interface. This is the other side of the problem competitors had with Windows: It is incredibly hard to get people to change from something they have learned and become comfortable with.
So even though we are seeing a lot of Microsoft phones all of a sudden, it will take aggressive marketing and seeding on top of the collapse of Android to get large enough numbers of people to the Microsoft platform to create critical mass. But Apple may have helped significantly with the new iPhone 5.
Apple’s unintentional helping hand
Apple made two potentially large mistakes with the iPhone 5, both related to their new power plug. One, they may have underestimated just how much this change is likely to anger people with new cars and accessories tied to the old plug; and two, they may have misgauged the European Union. Customers are locked into the iPhone ecosystem with the devices they have purchased that will operate off that plug. Having the new phones not work on their cars will likely get buyers to defer getting the new phone, and many of them will likely switch to phones that don’t have a unique plug to avoid repeating this experience in the future.
The EU is a bigger issue: It has issued a ruling requiring all phone makers that sell into the EU to be on the same plug. There was a transition agreement that ran from 2010 until the end of 2012 that allowed things like adapters so that manufacturers could be brought into compliance. Any new plug after that point was supposed to be equally common to all. Apple chose to interpret this agreement differently, and they may find their phones fined or blocked from being sold in the EU as a result sometime in 2013.
With Android crippled and Apple blocked or massively fined, Microsoft might be the only platform left standing.
Microsoft could owe its eventual success to Google and Apple mistakes. Hey, if you think about it, given how the other firms benefited from Microsoft mistakes in the 1990s, turnabout is fair play.
Rob Enderle is a principal analyst at the Enderle Group.