Microsoft Is Watching You

The Guardian is reporting that a lawsuit was filed last Wednesday claiming Microsoft is tracking users of Windows Phone 7 devices even in situations when location information was purportedly disabled. In the article, and in the ensuing discussion about the case, Apple’s name was inevitably dragged into the fray, focusing on the hubbub that was brought forth in April concerning the ‘consolidated.db’ file which stored timestamped latitude/longitude values, sometimes as far back as a year. As Josh Halliday at The Guardian puts it:

The lawsuit follows mounting concern about how technology giants, including Apple and Google, record users’ private data. Microsoft, Nokia, Apple and Google were called before the US Congress in April to explain their privacy policies after security researchers uncovered hidden location-tracking software in iPhones. Google Android phones were subsequently found to gather location data, but required users’ explicit permission.

There’s nothing inherently flawed with the quote above. Yes, there was concern about the possibility of tracking by several large companies. Yes the aforementioned companies were called before Congress. But no further mention is made of how Apple closed things out. And I imagine things will be a bit different with Microsoft.

To begin with, Microsoft’s declaration in their letter to Congress reads similarly to Apple’s press release with regard to what each company states they collect. Essentially they both claim to only track approximate location in order to provide a better user experience. In both cases, a small portion of the entire database of known Wi-Fi and cell tower locations is sent to the phone in order to be prepared to quickly obtain a more precise GPS based location on demand. Both companies also state that they honor the disabling of location services by disallowing the dissemination of this information to apps on the device which make a location request.

The differences begin with how the outcry started in each case. For Apple, the existence of the database had long been known by those technically savvy enough to snoop around the iPhone’s internals and figure out what they were looking at. It wasn’t until Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden revealed an open source utility to fetch the database for your viewing pleasure that things were sent into damage control. Shortly thereafter, Apple issued their press release which stated, among other things:

7. When I turn off Location Services, why does my iPhone sometimes continue updating its Wi-Fi and cell tower data from Apple’s crowd-sourced database?  
It shouldn’t. This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below).

It further added:

Software Update 
Sometime in the next few weeks Apple will release a free iOS software update that:

    • reduces the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone,
    • ceases backing up this cache, and
    • deletes this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

In the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone.

That was it for Apple. They would issue a free update that would cease even grabbing the cached data if you disabled location tracking, reduce the amount of cached data retained, cease backing it up if you did retain it, and delete the cache entirely if you disabled location tracking. Moreover, the next major iOS release encrypted it locally when it was stored. There were never any accusations of tomfoolery on Apple’s part.

In Microsoft’s case, the first sounding of the gong is the result of a lawsuit filed in Microsoft’s own backyard so to speak. Not simply an indication of something a techie found that was subsequently addressed but rather someone essentially throwing down with them. Of course, frivolous lawsuit are filed all the time, but I don’t see any advantage to be had here unless there is some truth to it. Even so, it’s an interesting distinction in terms of how the starting gun sounded.

So now we’re waiting to hear from Microsoft, to get their side of the story. Apple took 7 days to complete their response, and I imagine some of that time was spent with engineering, looking for the bug they spoke of. There was, I’m sure, time spent mulling over release dates, etc. We’re still within the same 7 day mark for Microsoft’s response, and they have at least indicated they will be responding though I figure that was a given. I wonder if they’ll admit it was a problem and indicate how they’ll be fixing it, or if they’ll take a more defensive posture. I’m guessing the latter. Regardless, I’ll be getting the popcorn and pulling up a chair. This ought to be interesting.


Windows Phone 7 Will Not Steal (Much) From iOS

Techcrunch is reporting that Gardner and IDC predict a 20 percent market share for Windows Phone 7 by 2015. Said to be a conservative estimate, it appears to be based on several factors:

  • HP dropping webOS, leaving potential developers to jump ship to another mobile platform
  • Microsoft pushing new product in Europe
  • Microsoft marketing to women and youth

Let’s take a look at these. HP dumped webOS because of a change in direction by their new CEO. I won’t go into why he chose to do this, but yes webOS is dead, or at least its twitching body is soon to be laid to rest, barring a last minute rescue at any rate. But how popular was webOS really? Wonderful as it may be, webOS never gained much traction in terms of actual rubber-to-road users. And like it or not, no matter how good your platform is, developers go where the users are. Where are the users? Not on webOS. So how much of a bump would Microsoft get if every single webOS developer suddenly migrated to developing for the platform? Not much. And that bump would be made smaller by the fact that developers on marginal platforms tend to cross develop to multiple platforms. In other words, webOS developers are probably already developing for other platforms including Windows Phone 7. While market share is zero sum game, developer share is another thing entirely. So I wouldn’t expect many more apps to be added to the WP7 platform by webOS developers because many of them may already be there.

What about Microsoft’s sales efforts in Europe? Currently Windows Phone 7 barely registers a blip on the radar. They have their work cut out for them, and releasing “hundreds” of salesmen into the market to try to “better demonstrate the product” might not have the anticipated effect. Certainly it can’t hurt to have more professionals out pushing your product, but in reality you are far more likely to buy into a platform because of one of two reasons: you are used to it already and are simply jumping to new hardware or someone you already know and trust shows you how the new platform is better. Which is to say, word of mouth. And right now, word of mouth is working against Microsoft, not for it.

What about targeting women and young/first-time buyers? I can’t speak to how or why WP7 might appeal to women in particular, though the claim is made. Still, saying it is particularly appealing to women speaks to a relative appeal between genders. It doesn’t mean women are necessarily desiring WP7 phones more than other platform’s devices. Just that women are more likely to want a WP7 than men. Again, assuming Achim Berg’s, head of  Windows Phone marketing, assertion is true. As for first-time buyers, well, you can’t buy cool.

Am I saying iOS is unassailable? Absolutely not. Look at Android. It has its problems, certainly, but Android has grabbed its own slice of the pie by differentiating itself from iOS. App availability is there, although the app store experience is, in my opinion, of lower quality. But it is theoretically far more tweakable than any iOS device. What exactly will WP7 bring to the table that is going to truly mark itself as being different enough from iOS to warrant grabbing market share there? Because that is what they are going to have to do no matter who they want market share from. They need to be different enough and in a good way, if they want to be picked from a lineup that includes some of the most popular phones currently produced. Even carrier availability is disappearing as a viable means of differentiation as iOS devices are beginning to appear on more networks worldwide.

No, Windows Phone 7 is not going to steal much, if any, market share from iOS, certainly not based on the information available today from Mr. Berg and the analysts down the hall.