Multiple sources are saying that Microsoft is working on its very own smartphone.
It’s not as crazy as it might sound. Microsoft might not want to pin its hopes on Nokia’s Windows Phone, and besides, Microsoft has all but admitted that longtime rival Apple’s approach — controlling the hardware, operating system, app store, and digital hub — is not without its allure (see Xbox, Zune, and the Surface tablet).
As evidence that the Redmond giant is building its own smartphone (artist’s rendition pictured above), Windows Phone Central cites a China Times report, it’s own off-the-record source, a Boy Genius Report article apparently based on a separate source, and a Geekwire claim that Microsoft is tightening security at its campus.
If this is true, which it looks to be, the usual suspects will poke fun at Microsoft for all the usual reasons. “They just don’t get it! They are not cool! They are business dorks!” But there’s one area in which Microsoft could show its rivals a thing or two, and ironically, it comes from the failed Zune music ecosystem.
For that powerful, if underused feature, Microsoft successfully negotiated deals with all the major labels to let Zune users to zap songs to each other directly, without using a cellular network. The recipient was able to play the song three times in three days before buying it — or, if they subscribed to the Zune unlimited music service, they could keep it.
This feature, which could dovetail nicely with Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox Music service, was so far ahead of its time that no other company in the mobile space has since caught up to it, though Facebook + YouTube/Spotify/Rdio/MOG works pretty great for full-track music sharing on the desktop.
Music sharing is clearly one of the main things people do on the internet — increasingly by legal means. However, it doesn’t work on mobile, due in part to licensing difficulties and the fact that unlimited music services don’t allow free, on-demand playback on mobile. Even Apple’s brand new iOS 6 is sadly lacking in this area, and it recently canceled its Ping music social network, which probably had more words written about it than it did active users.
Zune music sharing was incredibly cool, even though nobody used it, as I found out when I rode around the New York subway system waiting for the day when I would do my first share. But I never picked up another Zune user, even though New York is a populous place, and half the people on the subway appear to be listening to music on one device or another.
The problem was the hardware. Nobody had it. Nobody will have a Microsoft phone at first either, but Microsoft could build Zune-style music sharing into apps on every other smartphone platform, and build it into the Windows Phone OS. Apple would probably approve such an app for iTunes, the same way it did Spotify and the rest. After all, Apple gets paid when people subscribe within those apps.
However, Microsoft could reserve the most powerful sharing features for its own phone, such as unlimited sharing or a year of free unlimited music. Zune-style music sharing wouldn’t be enough to make the Microsoft phone a success, but it would help — especially if it offered users on other platforms a taste. Only Microsoft has negotiated the elusive licensing agreements to enable this feature, for which our desktop activity suggest there is plenty of pent-up demand.
As Sun Tzu once said, “Attack when you are strong, defend when you are weak.” Right now, every smartphone platform is pretty weak when it comes to mobile, real-world music sharing. Only Microsoft has a real track record with this feature, and soon, it could have another chance to make it work, although it would take plenty of gumption to build a new product atop the ruins of Zune.