Windows Phone chief Andy Lees sees time ripe for Mango
In a wide-ranging conversation, Andy Lees, the head of Microsoft's Windows Phone business, talks about the company's latest update, its competitors and where the business is headed.
Seattle Times technology reporters
Apple's iPhone 4S is a missed opportunity.
Android is becoming chaotic.
But Windows Phone is coherent and delightful across a variety of phones of various sizes and prices and, sometime soon, will be on handsets running on ultrafast LTE networks.
At least that's the take of Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's Windows Phone division, in an interview timed to the launch of Mango, Microsoft's latest update to its smartphone operating system.
Microsoft has high hopes for Mango — officially called Windows Phone 7.5 — which started rolling out to existing Windows Phone users last month. A range of new handsets, from budget models $100 or less to high-end phones with big screens and dual-LED flash, are expected to hit stores for the holiday season, though LTE phones are not expected until next year.
Mango is a big update, with 500 new features and deeper integration with Microsoft products such as Bing and Xbox. Its live-tile oriented software design is notably different from Google's Android and Apple iOS, and its philosophy is different, too.
Most smartphone platforms corral applications into silos, Lees says, where a user needs to go in and out of the apps repeatedly to complete a task such as finding nearby restaurants, reading reviews of them, and then making a reservation. That's all handled in a "flowing, almost singular experience" on Windows Phone, Lees says.
Perhaps more important, Mango represents an opportunity for Microsoft to finally get a bigger slice of the global smartphone market, something it's been unable to do thus far. Microsoft captured less than 2 percent of global smartphone sales in the second quarter of 2011, according to research company Gartner.
But Gartner and research firm IDC are bullish on Mango and the future of Windows Phone, with IDC predicting it will capture 20 percent of the market by 2015.
In this edited Q&A, Lees talks about Windows Phone strategy and what he thinks of his competitors.
Q: Do you think the iPhone 4S (running on iOS 5) gives you an opening? Do you think they missed an opportunity there?
A: Yes I do. I think, from an end user's experience on the software, there's a lot of interesting reviews written comparing us to iOS 5 and the amount that we've got done in 11 months — so some people (are) making comparisons of pace.
Perhaps the biggest comparisons people are making is our people-centricity. The more capabilities we add into our phone, the more delightful it becomes to use because you seem to have more at your fingertips without this clutter and confusion of the other platforms.
From a pure hardware perspective, I was surprised they're not giving the consumer more choice. People want a variety of different things.
Q: What do you think about some of the things you're seeing from Android this holiday season?
A: I think Android is heading down this chaotic phase. We want to enable OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), we want to enable operators, but we don't want chaos.
If you've used some of the (Android) phones, some of them are great, but some of them are not great. But it's random. And it feels like, with some of them, that you've had several cooks in the kitchen trying to bake different things with the same thing. Whereas we have much more coherency in the totality of what somebody gets when they buy our phone.
Q: Do you expect consumers to be able to walk in this holiday season and see some nice options for Windows Phone for around $100?
A: Or below. The strategy I'm talking about here is choice, different price points, different geographies.
The other thing that people ask about is what's happening in terms of the level of commitment that (manufacturers) have to promoting or marketing phones. (In terms of Nokia, which will be using Windows Phone exclusively on all its smartphones), they're 100 percent betting on Windows Phone. They have more reach than anybody else in terms of selling phones. They directly and indirectly manage over 600,000 retail outlets.
Having them so committed to Windows Phone is going to be a fundamental element for us to not only have great hardware but also huge reach and breakthrough with the customer.
We think it's (also) going to be an accelerant for other OEMs (including Samsung, which reached an agreement with Microsoft recently to cooperate in the development and marketing of Windows Phone, and HTC, which is increasing its sales and marketing commitment).
Q: Are they committed to going 4G?
A: All the phones in the U.S. are 4G. What's interesting with this release, instead of all the phones coming out on the same day, there will be a season that will carry on into the next year that will include LTE phones as well.
Q: How are you going to convince carriers to push your hardware this holiday season when you're not on their fastest networks?
A: First of all, they will want a price range of devices. At the moment, the ones on their fastest networks are the most expensive ones, so we're aligned there. And also as we go into next year, we will have all the fastest stuff anyway. So we will get there fairly shortly.
Q: What are you doing in terms of general marketing?
A: We work specifically with the operators and OEMs. Especially the OEMs. Its varies slightly country to country.
In the United States, the operators own the vast majority of the retail through which phones are purchased. That's not true in many other parts of the world. I would say the OEM is disproportionately important in most parts of the world. And in the U.S., it's probably a balance between the OEM and the operator.
Q: So are there commercials that Microsoft is producing that they will all use?
A: What we want to do is allow each hardware manufacturer to celebrate what's unique about their phone.
Q: It seems like one of the challenges is getting the salesperson in the store to push the phone.
A: Absolutely. I think that's a number of things:
One — they get influenced by how good the product is. The reviewers have influence with that and also their own experience.
The second thing is the alignment with the operator. I think we're already pretty aligned and over the life of this release, we'll get even more aligned.
The other element is the OEMs. I think initially, while the OEMs were behind us and produced great products — were they ready to go through and really dive in (since it was only the first version of Windows Phone)? I think they're seeing enough now that we're really seeing that snowball start to roll.
Q: Is this going to be your breakout year, do you think?
A: A few things: The Xbox will be updated in November. The UI (user interface) is very similar (to Windows Phone 7.5 and Windows 8) with the tiles and panoramas. Windows 8 is going to help. In terms of just the phone, having the choice of hardware and the quality of the experience are going to be accelerants. Over the next 12, 18, 24 months, I can see a lot of stars lining up.