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Does Microsoft Really Need A Windows Superphone?

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A leaked Windows Phone roadmap made the rounds earlier today, and if its contents hold true, then Microsoft will be going big on hardware when it comes time for Windows Phone Apollo to take the stage. Even though the budget-friendly Tango update will hit devices first, Microsoft has apparently made the development of “superphones” a priority for next year.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Windows Phone is that it doesn’t need the latest-and-greatest hardware in order to give users a consistently smooth experience. Take devices like the Focus Flash for example — AT&T will give you one for something like a penny these days, and I’d say the device runs about as well as any other Windows Phone on the market. That’s a good thing — creating a sense of consistency across devices at all price points means that nearly every user has the same (hopefully solid) experience.

By the same token, it also creates a problem of differentiation. When the experience of using the OS is very close across different devices, hardware manufacturers have to find ways to make their handset the one to buy. Whether that’s by going with a big display or a physical keyboard is up to the vendors to decide, but Microsoft’s supposed push for “superphones” with the Apollo update may mean that Microsoft will try and face Android on their own terms.

That’s where Microsoft falls into a trap, and I can’t really blame them.

Companies like Samsung and Motorola have taken their OS of choice and have thrown it on devices for every potential market they can think of. Meanwhile, blogs and pundits like to wax technical everytime a new spec sheet is released, which creates a sense of unwarranted hype around numbers and clock speeds and megapixels. The end result is an environment that’s overloaded with options, with only the best performing ones receiving any limelight.

That’s not to say a device’s specs aren’t important. In fact, they’re absolutely important to the extent that they help deliver a great user experience. After a while though, the law of diminishing returns kicks in — adding a slightly faster processor makes a device look better on paper, but actual performance gains could be negligible.

But Windows Phone has arguably made it to that point already. Sure, it could stand a few tweaks, but I don’t think what Windows Phone needs can be addressed by new hardware. Not yet. anyway. The limiting factor is the OS itself. It runs very well even on first-generation hardware, so would beefing up components make that much of a difference?

The concept of a superphone, with whatever specifics that may entail, hinges on the notion that it can deliver more than what a run-of-the-mill device is capable of. Dual-core processors and LTE radios would be welcome additions to the platform’s hardware lineup, and I’m sure they’ll appear in Windows Phones soon anyway, but hardware additions at best will only lead to feature parity with the competition. It all comes down to how big a step forward the Apollo update is.

It was long rumored that the “Apollo” codename referred to Windows Phone 8, and it’s apparent ship date in Q4 2012 means that a lot could happen between now and then. If some drastic changes take place, then the superphone concept may be better able to deliver a WP8 experience than current hardware.

But will it be enough to solidify their presence in the market? If the road map is legit (and hasn’t been made irrelevant), then waiting until Q4 2012 for their first superphones hit the market could put them at a terrible disadvantage against Android’s quick updates and Apple’s end-of-the-year marketing power. It’s bound to be a pretty gruesome fight no matter what developments arise between now and then, and Microsoft had better hope that their approach pays off.