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Microsoft's Smartphone Disasters Are Piling Up -- and That's a Bigger Industry Problem

Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Phone 7 has been available in the U.S. for almost two weeks and about a month in overseas markets -- and the handset vendor disasters are already piling up, which must have Steve Jobs smiling. The Samsung Focus fries microSD memory cards and will continue doing so until versions marked "certified for the Windows Phone 7" arrive... eventually. Dell's (DELL) Venue has major battery and Wi-Fi problems, and was probably the final straw that killed off the company's separate mobile division.

And even if all the hardware worked as advertised, some reviewers say that Windows Phone 7 handsets are a mediocre bunch. No wonder that sales are disappointing enough that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer won't say how many have shipped, although the company was happy to announce that it has sold over a million Kinects in just ten days. But there should be no surprise here. The problem is that, for whatever reason, companies in the mobile space largely refuse to learn and incorporate business fundamentals and lessons from the real world.

All of this is really bad news for Microsoft, which has essentially bet a large part of its future on mobile. There are some shortcomings in the software, and plenty of pretty poor marketing. But its real problem has been putting itself into a long-term position where it depended on mobile hardware vendors to come through in crunch time. And companies in the industry largely have no idea how to do that.

They all have Apple to look at -- for good and ill: marvelous design that blows up at times in embarrassing ways, but a push for innovation and simplicity that keeps customers. Samsung, Dell, and all the rest on the initial Windows Phone bus knew that flawless execution was necessary. And yet, too many simply screwed up. Samsung decided to add removable media, even though the operating system isn't designed to support it. Dell had one example after another of where it was going wrong in mobile, and simply told itself that this time would be different. It wasn't.

These two aren't the only examples. HTC's Windows Phone units can have a hard time connecting to Wi-Fi signals. And lest you think that Windows Phone is the problem, some Nokia (NOK) N8 phones have power issues.

Nobody is learning. They rush though products -- partly a result of the speed at which the industry is forced to run, to be fair -- and do inadequate testing. How could a Samsung include a removable media slot when none of the available memory cards will survive and not notice in testing? Did they think the total destruction was a feature?

Even on a strategic conceptual level, vendors say things that can leave your jaw gaping. Research In Motion (RIM) co-CEO Jim Balsillie recently said that Apple is wrong on apps:

"You don't need an app for the Web," he said at the Web 2.0 Summit this week. "I don't need a YouTube app to go to YouTube. There's this view that Web sites need to be repurposed for mobile and you need a special set of tools to do it. We don't believe that to be true."
Hey, Jim, it's not about how you think things should work. It's about how customers do. They want something that is well-designed, that intelligently anticipates what they will do, and that works out of the box. On the whole, Steve Jobs has a pretty good track record.

Ah, but to learn, Basille, like too many other mobile executives, would have to realize that he has had it wrong for years and that a change in course was necessary. And change is always so messy. Then again, so, apparently, is business as usual.

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Image: Flickr user David R. Carroll, CC 2.0.
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