With Windows Phone, Microsoft is trying to win back the magic

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes me a Mac guy as opposed to a PC guy and it seems that the Register may have hit on some very good points. Tim Anderson, the Register writer, notes that Microsoft has lost its edge when it comes to industrial design and even in during its recent MIX conference, where it was supposed to be all about design and sex, they dropped more science than art. Once upon a time abstraction mattered. Now, in an era where most programmers wouldn’t touch machine code with a 10-foot pole and most users have never seen a command line, the science has to be hidden.

The thing I hear the most from anti-Apple folks is that Windows is “open.” By open, I assume they mean that you can tweak it and install anything you want on it and if you need to you can get into DOS. The fallacies of that argument aside, it’s a fairly interesting window on Windows: geeks like Windows because it gives them freedom… until they try Linux.

But geeks are few and far between these days. Once only geeks bought smartphones. Now everyone does. Once geeks bought gaming PCs. Now everyone does. Once geeks only cared about keyboards with macro keys and numpads. Now everyone does. Powerful computing has entered the mainstream and the old ways of interacting with data are growing too complex for a vast majority of the mainstream. Hence the popularity of the iPod and the iPhone – buy device, install iTunes, put music on it. Buy device, press a button, get an app. Buy device, see a picture of your dog, send that picture to your mom. All of those use cases could be completed using an WinMo or Symbian phone, but could you give either of those OSes to your Mom and ask her to email you a photo? Nope.

So Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft’s return to the art of the interface. Rather than talking about Exchange Servers and MVPs, they’re talking about gaming and experience. And how do you control experience? By locking things down, by releasing product slowly, by doing what Apple did with the iPhone. Anderson notes:

Here’s what Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said during the February press launch for Windows Phone 7: “We want to lead and take complete accountability for the end user experience … have more consistency in the hardware platform, more consistency in the user experience, but still enable [partner] innovation.”

‘Partnering innovation’ is generally a disaster for Microsoft.

Ballmer makes a nod towards it as a matter of good public relations, but by locking down both hardware and software, the company is trying to minimize the extent to which OEMs can spoil the design effort.

I think the key word here is “spoil.” Microsoft is building an image around WinPho that it didn’t have with WinMo. That image is one of a powerful artifact rather than a manufactured piece of technology. Think back on the old Clarke chestnut (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) and tell me if the concept of lockdown – in WinPho and in OS X – doesn’t help a device become less a “device” and more a magical, seamless object.