Friday, September 11, 2015

Microsoft’s polycarbonate flagships are out of step with the industry, but that should not matter to true fans

Today we have a guest editorial by experienced smartphone journalist, insider and industry watcher Evan Blass, of fame, taking a critical look at Microsoft’s upcoming flagships.

To say that the emphasis on handset design and appearance has only recently come into vogue, would be ignoring the hundreds of smartphones that existed before Apple’s iPhone — people have always wanted their devices to look good and feel premium, even if they were “just” geeks with a much greater focus on functionality.
There was, however, an industry-defining moment in the release of the Apple handset’s fourth iteration, the (Gizmodo-leaked) iPhone 4: this beautifully symmetrical, glass-sandwiched slab had some of the tightest machining tolerances that the average consumer had ever experienced (and been able to afford). It was like an object that should only rightfully belong to the wealthy had somehow fallen into the hands of the common man. It even convinced me to leave the Windows Mobile fold for a brief, year-long iOS affair.

While Apple has since moved on from that glass-and-metal sandwich (and probably with good reason, as glass-backed phones are as slippery as they are shatter-prone), its repercussions are still being felt in this industry, most prominently with this year’s Galaxy S duo from Samsung, the S6 and S6 edge — both of which feel like spiritual successors to that revolutionary device.
The 4 indisputably raised the bar for handset design and construction well beyond the confines of 1 Infinite Loop; from Samsung’s Seoul to Taipei (headquarters of HTC) to the Chinese mainland and Huawei, manufacturers have been forced to step up their games to remain competitive in a flagship marketplace that is increasingly demanding not just cutting-edge features, but world-class appearance and materials as well.

It’s a trend that’s still weaving its way throughout the industry, with even traditionally budget-conscious brands like LG now finally acknowledging this new world order, and brands like Motorola becoming some of the lone holdouts in an industry increasingly anathema to plastic-fantastic devices and iterative designs that do little to move the space forward.

Microsoft still has a woefully slim history in the design of cellphones

And then there’s Microsoft. The software-centric company still has a woefully slim history in the design and manufacture of cellphones, with even its adopted handset wing — the former devices division of Finnish powerhouse Nokia — deeply entrenched in a polycarbonate mindset hearkening back to the days of the Meego-powered N9.

With the Lumia brand having focused almost exclusively on mid- and entry-level devices since the Nokia acquisition, it’s not been clear how Redmond would approach its first set of Lumia flagships under its own parent branding. (The most recent Lumia flagship, the Lumia 930, was released well over a year ago, and has even been discontinued already in certain markets — which now lack a clear-cut, commercially-available, Windows-powered hero device.)

While hopeful rumors had the upcoming pair of large-screened Lumias — codenamed Talkman and Cityman and set for an October 10th (10/10, get it?) launch as the Lumia 950 (Talk) and Lumia 950 XL (City) — finally breaking away from their plastic roots, a recent leak quashed those last remaining hopes.

Unsurprisingly, I suppose, the overall reaction tone to these renders has been decidedly negative, with some less-than-fully-devoted Windows Phone/phone fans even cashing in their upgrade subsidies for Android models in the wake of this disappointment.
Technically, there’s little to quibble about with regards to this pair of handsets (unlike past, arguably under-spec’ed Windows Phones whose reference designs lagged the pace of commercial component availability), and in at least a few regards, they promise refreshing technological achievements like convenient iris scanner biometric security and the ability to be docked as full-fledged computer brains.

We no longer live in a pre-iPhone world

But we no longer live in a pre-iPhone world, filled with chunky Windows Mobile sliders whose functionality trumped their design merits. Today’s phone consumer is living in a golden era of competition-fomented choice, despite the fact that if he or she is a Windows-devotee, there’s now just a single manufacturer on which to lay all of his or her hopes.

It’s a lot of pressure for the embattled former Devices division, one that has simultaneously seen its ranks thinned several times since that ill-fated acquisition, whose nearly-entire cost Microsoft was recently forced to write down. Is it really any surprise that a division in turmoil, composed of haggard employees watching their friends and coworkers steadily joining the ranks of the unemployed — and worried that they themselves will be next — is pushing out uninspiring phones, even at the top of the lineup?

Windows fans have a lot working against them these days, as would users of any platform with a relatively small and stagnant market share. Not only are they being pressured towards the much larger Android and iOS camps and their bountiful app stores, they are facing an almost monopolistic hold on the device choice by the maker of the platform. It’s an awful situation to be in as a consumer, and one whose extrication can be easily forgiven: there’s no prize for being the last man standing in support of a well-loved, but not super popular, operating system.
I guess my major takeaway here is to implore fans to temper their public criticisms of these upcoming devices, bearing in mind that the people who made them were forced to do so under the most inhospitable conditions. Whether you’re a pure Windows lover, or a former Nokia devotee, you surely understand that Team Espoo has been tasked with a nearly impossible goal, which is to create tent-pole devices during a time that their employment and working environments have never been in greater turmoil.

Wait until you actually see these phones unveiled before passing final judgment

Also, wait until you actually see these phones unveiled before passing final judgment; leaks aren’t always 100% accurate, and they often appear sterile and lifeless in imagery never intended for public consumption. Your love of Windows Phone has kept you loyal for this long, so surely you can wait to let Microsoft put its best foot forward in launching these overdue flagships next month.


Labels: ,