Microsoft scrambles to quell a Windows Phone user insurrection



It's no secret that Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone has failed to catch on with smartphone buyers. Despite positive media reviews and signature features like Live Tiles, consumers have largely ignored the platform: Windows Phone 8 devices accounted for just 4.6 percent of all smartphones sold in the United States during the three-month period ending in May 2013, miles behind Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android at 52 percent and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS at 41.9 percent, according to a recent report issued by research firm Kantar Worldpanel ComTech. Windows Phone 8 has eclipsed the fading BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) platform and is "growing faster than anyone else right now," Windows Phone Senior Product Manager Larry Lieberman told The Verge late last month. 

"We think we're solidly the third ecosystem right now," Lieberman said during an interview at Microsoft's Build developers conference. "That's a huge announcement in some respects."

Microsoft has made few formal announcements about Windows Phone's future, however. Insiders say the company is working on the so-called Windows Phone Blue update, expected in early 2014--rumors say the major upgrade will bring a notification center, enhanced multitasking and improvements to built-in applications, among other improvements. But that's still months away. In the here and now, Microsoft is rolling out minor upgrades like Windows Phone 8 General Distribution Release 2, issued last week. GDR2 is highlighted by the restoration of FM radio support--a longtime Windows Phone OS feature dropped with the late 2012 launch of WP8--as well as Xbox Music improvements to provide more accurate metadata, a Data Sense app tracking service, and stability improvements to services like Internet Explorer and Skype.

That isn't nearly enough for some Microsoft loyalists, however. This weekend, user Tùng Hà turned to the company's Feature Suggestions for Windows Phone forum to submit a post headlined "We need Microsoft to listen to our ideas and DO something."

"Ok, we're here after a year of WP8. We're about to get the GDR2 update and we're still not getting anything from the TOP ideas of this forum," Hà wrote. "Sometimes I'm wondering Microsoft is listening or not. Or they just simply try to convince us to buy the phone and then leave us here. GDR2 is just a small update, I see no actual features with high demand from customer on this update. Things need to change, OR, we'll leave this OS. Do something, Microsoft, before it's too late." As of Wednesday morning, more than 6,000 users had voted on the thread, many of them harshly critical of Microsoft's Windows Phone efforts.

The user outcry quickly grew too loud for Microsoft too ignore. Joe Belfiore, Microsoft corporate vice president and manager for Windows Phone Program Management, joined the Feature Suggestions thread to plead for patience: "We're definitely here and paying attention to what you folks are asking for... keep in mind the trick for us is balancing things that make EXISTING devices better for you, our enthusiast users, versus things that create new devices to sell to a broader audience," he writes. "A lot of the work in GDR2 was around enabling new devices--like the Lumia 1020, devices on Sprint (NYSE:S), etc., so that we could keep growing the size of the WP ecosystem. We need to grow the number of people using WP so we get ISVs writing the apps, we get better/more accessories built, etc." 

Belfiore goes on to promise that enhancements are afoot: "We still do intend to improve the user experience for you via new features. There's some in GDR 2 (eg. DataSense broadly available, FM Radio) there's more coming later this year, and still more after that."

Belfiore's comments did little to stem the tide of Windows Phone user complaints. If anything, posts following his response are even more aggressive than the posts that preceded it. Consumers certainly have a point: Microsoft has done little to evolve the OS, and it seems absurd that a company of its size and scale can't focus on expanding hardware support while simultaneously improving the underlying software. Let's hope that this insurrection is the wake-up call Microsoft needs: Failing to attract new users is a huge problem, but alienating diehard users is another issue altogether. Windows Phone Blue will represent a make-or-break moment for Microsoft's mobile aspirations, and if the company didn't realize that before users threw down the gauntlet, it certainly understands now. --Jason