LAS VEGAS – Brandon Watson, who heads up developer relations for Microsoft’s Windows Phone, has something to prove.
Some might say Watson, whose official title is director, developer experience, Windows Phone, has a chip on his shoulder. But that would be a bit off because that connotes harboring a grudge or hoping to provoke a fight. That’s not his thing. Though he’s not one to back down from a fight, Watson’s game is defense with a very calculated offensive strategy-protect the budding Windows Phone franchise, while steadily growing the developer base by offering new opportunities for developers to distribute and market their applications, along with hot new tools to create them.
It’s the Microsoft way. Coming from a dark horse position, late to the game, Microsoft has a history of growing incrementally better with each new iteration. As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said: “We just keep coming and coming and coming and coming” after the competition. On the smartphone front, Microsoft has a long way to go, but the offensive strategy that included a major partnership with Nokia, and a bunch of new tools and features in the upcoming “Mango” release of the Windows Phone 7 operating system, will help increase market share and get the Microsoft platform in front of more developers.
So rather than being “chippy,” you might say Watson has a swagger. And not the newfangled swagger that rappers and athletes who just learned the word talk about. Watson brings a swagger handed down from folks who’ve earned it by learning through trial and tribulation. He calls it passion and he cites older generations, from his father to older executives at Microsoft, who’ve laid old-time sayings and lessons on him about how to proceed in the face of adversity.
In a meeting with eWEEK at Microsoft’s MIX11 conference here, Watson was alternately engaging, combative, enlightening and evasive, but never off point. And the point being that Microsoft is in the smartphone game for the long haul and plans to have its place in the market.
Coming from so far behind, that kind of talk is risky. But Vegas is the place for risk takers. And Watson is just that. He holds engineering and economics degrees from an Ivy League school and an MBA from a prominent business school. He then spent some years on Wall Street taking risks and making money, before he decided to make real stuff. He also did a stint as an entrepreneur and launched a startup he later sold. Along the way, he did two stints at Microsoft and is back with a vengeance.
“You can’t win big unless you run the risk of losing big,” he said.
Mostly, Watson sees the role of his group as enabling developers. “Our job is helping them get started and making them rich and famous,” he said.
At MIX11, Watson’s team had something to talk about in the upcoming “Mango” version of the Windows Phone operating system. He cited the Bing Search Extras and Live Agents as two of the top new features that stand out in his view.
“Search Extras is cool technology to have apps solve a customer problem,” he said. “It leverages the Bing search engine.”
In a blog post on the new features, Matt Bencke, general manager of the Windows Phone business, said, “‘Multitasking’ meets Integrated Experiences with Live Agents: Superior customer engagement with real-time interactions via Live Tiles, Push Notifications, Deep Linking and Background Agents. Multitasking is also enhanced to allow for fast applications switching, as well as background audio and file transfer.”
Microsoft says there are now more than 13,000 Windows Phone applications and it’s growing, and there are more than 1,500 new APIs for the platform that developers can use to create new experiences. “There is an entire generation of developers who are unencumbered by constraints of the last generation of the technology,” Watson said. “We just give them the tools and get out of the way.”
Among several new features developers at MIX11 raved about is the new support for Silverlight and XNA in the same project. This means developers can create richer applications with high-quality 3D graphics as seen on Xbox games.
“If you want to have a Silverlight application with XNA performance or an XNA game with Silverlight controls, you can have that,” Watson said.
Meanwhile, Watson knows to pay homage to Microsoft’s rich developer history. “The company was founded by developers and its first product was a language,” he said. And when the phone opportunity presented itself, we recognized the priority of reaching out to developers. You don’t get hired on my team unless you write code for fun. Being able to make a personal connection with developers is important.”
Watson said the Nokia opportunity is huge for his team in terms of its global reach and the opportunity to extend the platform to developers worldwide. “Nokia makes 1.2 million cell phones a day,” he said. “They’re in countries we’re not in yet. This is a huge opportunity for our developer base.”
With that, Watson noted a bit of advice offered up by a former Microsoft executive, Robbie Bach, who used to run Microsoft’s devices unit as president of the Microsoft Entertainment & Devices Division. Bach, a mentor to Watson, told him the opportunity he faces with the Nokia deal is like the opportunity Bach faced when he was the top marketing executive in charge of Microsoft Office during the 1990s and battled against Corel and Lotus when they had 80 percent market share to Microsoft’s 20 percent. Microsoft came to own that space, and analysts are projecting that Microsoft will become the No. 2 smartphone vendor by 2015.
“Robbie told me this is a unique point in time; it’s a huge opportunity, so don’t muck it up,” Watson said.