Windows Phone 8 Promises Heart & Soul, Delivers Zombie Pitch

It’s a good pitch. It really is:

“We are not for everybody. We’re for the individual,” intoned the video narrator at Monday’s Windows Phone 8 launch event. Microsoft is positioning its new mobile operating system as the only smartphone for people.

Too bad Microsoft seems so out of touch with what people are actually like. There's nothing wrong with the concept, I just wish Microsoft had somebody else to sell it. On it's own, the company too often seems tone deaf, trying to be hip and cool and ending up looking like it's trying just a little too hard. 

For example, Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore demoed the new Kid’s Corner feature by bringing out his actual kids. It was pretty cute - at first. You can swipe right from the lock screen and enter a kid-safe zone, where they can arrange their favorite apps and games and customize the names and colors without messing with the grown-up stuff. This is a great feature, and Microsoft beat Apple to it.

But then it got a little weird. Belfiore started talking about how this feature is secretly “for you,” because it tranquilizes your kids. Ugh. 

Heart & Soul

One of the key themes at Monday's event was the “heart and soul” of Windows Phone. It was the same story the company has been selling since 2010: Windows Phone isn’t just a grid of apps, it’s “Live Tiles” of people. It’s still a good idea, so I have to wonder why it hasn’t caught on.

Here's a hint: At one point in the event, Belfiore asked the attendees to hold up their Windows Phones. “Yes! That’s nice!”, he gushed. “That’s nice! That feels good for me to see!” Unfortunately, the fashion — untucked dress shirts and jeans — and the adjectives — “Our most beautiful and innovative line of hardware yet.” — didn’t just come off as an Apple imitation. It felt just as sanitized and unnatural as Apple events, but without the absolute conviction that Apple seems to inspire.

And that's too bad, because Microsoft has some of the right ideas. “Your phone becomes like your fingerprint,” Belfiore said, by letting you arrange it around the people, information and tasks that matter in your daily life. And the people are the most important part, according to the pitch. Microsoft wants to put “people at the center of the experience, not icons of apps. Not speeds and feeds,” whatever those are.

It sounds right, doesn’t it? So why hasn’t it taken off in the market?

When you watch the bland demos, and you listen to the explanations of the features, you begin to see the problem - a weird disconnect between the message and the subtext. Kid’s Corner is not a great feature because kids are great, in Microsoft’s terms. It’s great because it silences the little nuisances. It turns everyone into a more docile, polished, helpful member of society. And by using Windows Phone 8, you, too, can identify personally with the corporate colors of your mobile computer.

Microsoft knows what product it wants to deliver: a phone that expresses individuality. But “heart and soul,” to use Belfiore’s words, aren’t a feature set. They're a mind set. A mindset that Microsoft is still working on. 

That's critical as Microsoft cranks up its marketing machine for the Holiday season. “You won’t be able to turn on a TV or open a magazine without seeing a Microsoft Windows ad,” vowed MIcrosoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

People clapped. But will they buy?