As Apple skews its iPhone 4S commercials toward proud parents and suburban breadwinners, Microsoft on Monday unveiled in New York City's Herald Square a much different advertising strategy, unofficially dubbed "The Big-Ass Windows Phone."
The phone is exactly what it sounds like: It is simply a big (ass) brash Windows Phone, a 55-foot tall Oldenburgesque representation of the Microsoft's Mango operating system, plopped down in the middle of Manhattan and designed to draw attention to the lagging 18-month-old mobile OS. Each tile on the phone opened up throughout the day with a demonstration of the Windows Phone capabilities.
The towering Windows Phone is certainly the most high profile (literally and figuratively) WP campaign by Microsoft so far, and by the tone of events surrounding the unveiling -- a surprise concert by nightclub party-rockers Far East Movement (of "Like A G6" fame); free New York pizza for audience members and passersby; and generous amounts of smack talk for the competitors they hope to chase down -- Microsoft seems convinced that the cool factor will help its operating system take off, iPhone be damned.
"Personally, I think cool is what's new and what's different," Casey McGee, senior public relations manager for Windows Phone, told HuffPost at the media event. "The iPhone was very successful when it came out, with the touchscreen and the icons. What we're doing is different. To me what's cool is what's different and what's state of the art and I think that what we're doing with Windows Phone is advancing the state of the art smartphone."
Old and busted: iPhone; New hotness: Windows Phone?
"The problem with the iPhone is, the original design came out six years ago and every phone that's come out afterwards has been based on that design," said Bill Cox, senior director of communications for the Windows Phone Division. "You've got a sea of icons and applications that all look the same in the smartphone market....Now, I find both of them [iOS and Android] unsatisfying. We've put so much work into making Windows Phone sort of fun, whimsical and making it feel alive, and frankly more useful, that when I pick up another device, I do feel kind of bored, kind of unsatisfied."
And what about Siri, the single most buzzed-about feature of the iPhone 4S? Neither McGee nor Cox seemed very impressed or even convinced that Siri was better than the Microsoft Tellme voice recognition suite that ships with Mango phones. Cox said he was not threatened by Siri at all; McGee, meanwhile, was simply underwhelmed.
"Siri won't open apps, which is kind of ironic," McGee said. "Siri is supposed to connect you with 500,000 apps, or whatever, and it can't open one of them!"
Sarcasm, as the movie quote goes, is losers trying to bring winners down to their level, and right now Windows Phone is losing, with something like 6 percent market share in the United States (compared to 44 percent for Android, 27 percent for iOS and 20 percent for BlackBerry). Despite pointing to reports from Gartner and IDC predicting that Windows Phone will surpass iOS to become the number two platform in America by 2015, Microsoft is, for now, at the bottom of the pit gazing hungrily upward at the rear ends of Apple, Google and RIM.
"As more and more people start to see phones and try them out for themselves, there's a multiplier effect," a confident Cox said beneath the shadow of the "Big-Ass Windows Phone." "They'll tell a friend, and that friend will tell a friend. It's about seeing the device and then it's about handling the device...I don't think many people have a grasp on how much we've done in one and a half years."
It is true that Microsoft has created an incredible mobile OS in just 18 months; it is also true that most consumers don't care about the speed with which a corporate giant developed a mobile operating system. They care about the product, and how it compares to similar products.
The "Big-Ass Windows Phone" event seemed like a small-scale success; reaction was positive, though crowds seemed thinner than a mondo-corporation would hope for. In an odd move, Microsoft did not advertise the fact that Far East Movement was playing a concert, instead pumping the always-un-enticing "surprise musical guest"; I would estimate about 150 non-Microsoft employees were bobbing their heads to "Like a G6" on a Monday afternoon. A friend of mine in New York, when informed that his favorite group Far East Movement had just performed a free concert in the middle of the city, responded via text message with incredulous profanity.
Whether sales of Windows Phones fly like a G6 or stay cold (like a blizzrrrrd) will largely depend on the ability of Microsoft and its device manufacturers to get Americans to see the device, and then handle the device. It's a touch-friendly, immediately gratifying, eye-catching operating system that should attract its share of both image-conscious teenagers and an older crowd looking for a simple, easy-to-use smartphone. A humongous smartphone structure in midtown Manhattan is a fine start; a national advertising campaign that makes a direct and coherent case for why Windows Phones tower over its competitors in a big-ass way is next.
Below, see photos from the Windows Phone event. Some have been taken by the Microsoft PR team; others were taken with my Focus Flash, the low-end $49 Windows Mango Phone from Samsung: