Windows Phone Woes: Is it the Name, Stupid?

By  |  Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 10:02 am

Lots of buzz on the Web today about a fascinating question: Why isn’t Windows Phone catching on? You can read thoughts from Robert Scoble, MG Siegler, and former Windows Phone honcho Charlie Kindel, among others. Everybody has a different set of theories.

And Daring Fireball’s John Gruber makes a parenthetical remark that I find intriguing:

(And, as I’ve said before, I think the “Windows” brand hurts them here. Windows Phone 7 doesn’t sound like a new platform. It sounds like an old one. They should have called it Metro 1.0.)

Windows Phone’s market failure to date surely stems from a confluence of obstacles rather than one overriding issue. But there’s no denying that “Windows Phone 7” and “Windows Phone 7.5” are willfully mundane monikers for operating systems that aren’t the least bit mundane. They suggest business as usual, when what Microsoft actually did–rather bravely–was to start from scratch.

(Microsoft’s rebranding of Windows Mobile as Windows Phone may have had some significance in the company’s own mind, but it was way too subtle to matter to the masses, or even to people who care about this stuff; to this day, I keep accidentally typing “Windows Mobile” when I mean “Windows Phone.”)

Normally, I’m wary about companies ditching well-known brands; it’s far easier to stretch perceptions than to start over. (That’s why, when I was editor of PC World, I never would have advocated for changing its name to something with a more 21st-century feel.) In this case, though, it’s worth wondering: Would more people take a look at Windows Phone if it were called Metro, or at least something without “Windows” in it?

We’ll never know. And we don’t know whether Microsoft seriously considered such an option, or did any market research on it. After the ill-fated journey known as Zune–not to mention the Kin meltdown–it may have been wary about creating all-new brands. And it may still think that Windows users the world over are at least slightly more likely to consider Windows Phone because of its name.

But I’m inclined to think that a new name would have made sense. It would have made a statement; it would have made the new software sound more like an iPhone-level big deal rather than an incremental update aimed at Windows Mobile users. It wouldn’t have had a meaningful effect on market share all by itself, but it would have gotten things off to a better start.

Of course, Microsoft being Microsoft, it’s not out of the question that it might change Windows Phone’s name yet. But there’s no way to rewrite history and get the big-bang effect that would have resulted from an all-new Microsoft mobile OS with an all-new name.

Footnote: As far as I know, Microsoft hasn’t stated that Windows 8 will ship under the name Windows 8; it’s still a code name. It would be utterly stunning if that radical upgrade shipped with a name that didn’t have the word “Windows” in it. Unthinkable, really, giving how important it is that Microsoft convince painfully conservative corporate customers to give Windows 8 a try. Even so, it’s fun to toy with the notion: What if Windows 8 wasn’t called Windows?

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20 Comments For This Post

  1. Dave Barnes Says:

    "Windows Phone for the New Millennium XP" would be a good name.
    Longer is stronger.
    iPhone is way too short.

  2. @selviano Says:

    Yes! Totally agree.

    I asked this question when it was announced in Feb 2010:

    It's kind of sad to see Microsoft finally do something gutsy and innovative and stumble by calling it Windows. Also, I think it must be said that Windows may be a "popular" brand, but regardless of sales, not many people really like it. There are few Windows fanboys, rather, Windows is the OS you tolerate if you want a bargain on PC hardware. People see it as "good enough" or the baseline, not a premium brand.

    Not what you want when trying to sell a premium, differentiated mobile experience.

  3. @kawika Says:

    Speaks volumes about fealty to the money-making portions of Microsoft's business. I was shocked when Xbox launched without "Windows" in the name. Microsoft Metro 1.0 might have been worth a look for consumers unwilling to seeks out Windows anything on a new phone. (Not to mention the fact there are no actual windows in the new OS.)

  4. @xristianplante Says:

    That's Marketing 101! Yes, ditch the name.

    What if Microsoft had called the Xbox, 'Microsoft Gaming'? You think they would have been able to take on the Playstation?

    There's a good reason why Android is not called 'Google Phone' or 'Google Mobile'.

    'Windows' has meant a PC experience for 25 years. You can't changes people's perception this easily. They don't want something that sounds like it will require a mouse to run their cellphone… 😉

  5. Robert Scoble Says:

    When I visited Microsoft I talked about this with several employees. It's clear they considered it but it never got out of committee. It's just much easier to stick with an old brand than come up with a new one.

  6. @weetigo Says:

    I heard it was a horrible name to start with due to Windows Mobile experience that I've only read about, but with the Metro UI conformity happening in Windows Phone, XBox and Windows 8, I think it will help in the long run.

  7. Johnny Says:

    @xristianplante – To be fair, Android was called Android before Google bought it, but your point remains.

    It is interesting to see all the chatter about Windows Phone today. I can only speak for myself, but for my needs, an elegant user interface trumps all; maybe it's because I was spoiled by having a webOS device as my first smartphone.

    I currently own an Android Gingerbread phone, and it's fine but not fantastic. I am very interested in Windows Phone, and will be shopping it against Android 4.x devices when my contract is up later this year. I will consider iOS when the UX becomes more fluid and less button-pushy (which may very well happen in 2012).

  8. Ted Says:

    Maybe they should call it the Microsoft Door 8.0 as it'll be a change from leaning out of a Window 7th.

  9. Avro Says:

    Windows. People want to have a nice experience with a SmartPhone, like the iPhone. Windows conjures up all the wrong things: A device that locks up for no apparent reason, gradually gets slower over time, and is constantly getting bogged down by malware.

    No one wants that.

    Microsoft makes RIM look like a giant.

  10. John Baxter Says:

    It appears to me that Microsoft (at the top level) thinks people around the world love Windows. I think people around the world mostly tolerate Windows because they "have to". If I'm right then "Windows" in the name is a negative, not the positive that the MS CEO and friends think it is.

    Given my first sentence, I don't think Windows 8 will be called anything that doesn't include the word Windows.

  11. Avro Says:

    It's a bit like a Prison Cook thinking he is fantastic because the inmates eat his food.

  12. colored pencil Says:

    I am fortunate enough to find this blog.Informative and entertaining at the same time.

  13. The_Heraclitus Says:

    The usual product positioning problem. Name THREE PC O/S's, Cola's, Car rental agencies, et al and look at relative market share. Most often within ONE product category you have 3 major products. 2 with large mkt share and the 3rd — with a VERY small share.

    Nothing new here.

  14. davezatz Says:

    Guess Gruber liked my proposal back in October. 😉

  15. Rob Says:

    Why not call it XPhone in line with the momentum of the XBox?

  16. Lazlow St. Pierre Says:

    The name makes no sense because these mobile OS's don't have the windows of traditional desktop GUIs and the word 'phone' implies that it's just for phones, and not for tablets or iPod touch type devices. If someone wants to make an iPod touch competitor, people buying it are going to be confused. If it's not a phone, why does it come with something called Windows Phone? Maybe it is actually a phone?

  17. The_Heraclitus Says:

    I know! They can call it … iWIN


  18. Andy Natural Search Says:

    I was in a store today looking for a new phone, and I had the exact same thought. The name just doesn't work. I was looking at a phone that the clerk called the "Windows 7 Phone Nokia Lumia 800". I then bought an iPhone as I simply didn't have the time to explain all that to my friends when they ask about my new device.

  19. Brian Prince Says:

    I like the idea of calling it Metro. But then, I really liked the branding of the Zune, and look how well that did …

  20. Cheap Essays Says:

    Just wanted to say great job with the blog, today is my first visit here and I’ve enjoyed reading your posts so far