Windows Phone is in a strange situation at the moment. There's recently been a lot of talk that Windows Phone is dead. And during this chatter, Microsoft has stayed silent on the subject, which is just like them.
It certainly feels like we're part-way between Microsoft talking about the ever-upcoming Windows Mobile 10, and announcing that they've dropped it. It now seems beyond doubt that Windows phones will never really take off - it's unlikely that they'll ever reach even the share that Macs have of the desktop market.
So why do they bother?
It looks to me like they're continuing for a couple of reasons:
- they want to push the idea of Universal Apps, a model whereby developers build not for a single platform (say, mobile) but instead simply build a scalable app that runs on any of the Windows 10-running devices (phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, Xbox)
- Microsoft have a history of pushing their own technology (software) to the point where people give up on alternatives and just use Microsoft's offering. Well, that was the past. I'm not sure Microsoft realise that they're beaten here.
Here's the paradoxical problem: no-one's buying the devices, so no developers are building universal apps, so no-one's buying the devices… Microsoft are now on the outside of a Catch 22 loop and can't find a way in.
Microsoft's vision of the future of apps is Universal Apps. Image from mspoweruser.com.
To make the situation worse, we're still waiting for Windows Mobile 10 with no release date yet announced. And on that note, I suspect that one of the reasons why Windows Phone devices haven't really sold well is because Microsoft/Nokia focussed on the low-end of the market whereas it's the top-end of the market which is more influential, even if there are more low-end units sold. And Microsoft's looming problem is that those low-end phones may not be capable of running Windows Mobile 10. This repeats the slap in the face that Microsoft gave Windows Phone 7 buyers when Windows Phone 8 was launched and required new hardware.
So no-one's buying the device because of a
lack dearth of apps, and Microsoft seem to expect those who have previously adopted it to buy expensive new hardware running an operating system which is currently missing-in-action - and there's a very good chance will be dead-on-arrival…
The obvious question here is why are Microsoft still heading full-steam down this road if it's so clear that so few are interested? I think it's in large part due to a commercial arrogance that Microsoft have.
Microsoft haven't really had to market Windows for 20 years. I can remember a large-scale marketing campaign for Windows 95 but not since then - and I mean billboards, magazine adverts, TV adverts (although I have seen occasional TV adverts for Microsoft's devices but not for their software), the like of which I see for the iPhone and Android-running devices. Nor do they seem to market Office; everyone else does it for them: if there's a new version of Windows or Office these become so well-written about that Microsoft themselves don't have to bother.
Former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop onstage at the launch of Windows Phone 8 with then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer - was this the last time that Microsoft ever promoted Windows Phone 8? Image from digitaltrends.com.
I now wonder whether Microsoft thought that all they had to do in order to sell Windows Phone licenses was to make Windows Phone available and the rest would take care of itself. I've written previously about Microsoft's almost-complete lack of promotion of Windows Phone but suffice to say that in 2010 Microsoft launched Windows Phone then did nothing with it, apparently expecting their hardware partners to do the work. But their hardware partners were already having success (and profits) from pushing Android phones which didn't require a license fee. [Microsoft has since got this message and now offers Windows 10 licenses for free on devices whose screen size is under 10 inches.] Then in 2013 Microsoft launched Windows Phone 8, telling those who had already bought into the series that they would now have to buy new hardware (which in itself seemed contemptuous), but again very, very few people bought into it while Microsoft did very little to visibly promote it. Then in July 2015 Microsoft launched Windows 10, promising a single app marketplace: buy your apps on one device, said Microsoft, and it'll run across the whole Windows 10 range. Then added "Windows 10 Mobile coming soon" as an afterthought.
Here we are in March 2016 and they still haven't announced a launch date for Windows Mobile 10. All we have are a series of betas which seem to me to have the same bugs in each version, as well as a warning that we may, once again, need to buy new hardware.
Not that a launch date will help things, the public simply aren't interested and I can see very few reasons why they should be.
One Windows to rule them all
The reason that Microsoft are so intent on (eventually) launching Windows Mobile 10 is so they can promote this idea of a single operating system across all consumer devices - even their Xbox One games console.
But the problem with this is that Windows 10 has been out for 7 or 8 months now and its app marketplace has failed to gain any momentum. Microsoft seem to be delusional in thinking that launching another new mobile OS will help things.
I'm convinced that Microsoft are deluding themselves and that another new mobile OS will simply highlight what's missing.
At this late point in this blog post I'll point out that I'm one of the few Windows Phone users, and I have trouble seeing myself enjoying using any other mobile platform.
ZDNet's Larry Seltzer explains several good reasons why he also prefers it - those few who use it do seem to enjoy using it, and it does have advantages, though I also feel that the fascinating user interface ethos of Windows Phone 7 has been watered down with each iteration. If I had to buy a new phone tomorrow I'd struggle to choose which platform to go with - the fact is that despite offering a tremendous user interface, running very smoothly and offering good battery life, its glaring lack of apps poses a real drawback.
In what is clearly an effort to turn around the so-called 'app gap' Microsoft recently bought Xamarin, whose development tools allow developers to more easily share code between Android, iOS and Windows apps.
But I'm not sure why Microsoft bought Xamarin - it's not as if a huge number of mobile developers were already using Xamarin for Android and iOS development while ignoring its Windows compatibility.
Now, in software terms a Xamarin license is quite expensive, so perhaps Microsoft have concluded that people aren't going down the Xamarin-shared-code route because of its pricing, and that Microsoft have bought the company in order to make these tools available freely or more cheaply. In that scenario it might make sense but I'm unconvinced that this will turn things around; I can easily imagine that this will simply result in some people becoming very rich, some developers losing their jobs, and the situation with Windows' app-gap remaining the same.
Xamarin build developer tools which encourage sharing of code built for different platforms. Image from blog.xamarin.com.
The app-gap is certainly a real problem for Microsoft, but I don't think this is their only sales problem.
Our changing relationship with technology
Back in the early '90s very few people had computers in their homes for any reason other than children playing games.
Then came the internet.
At first people used the internet and email in the workplace, invariably on a Windows PC. Then they gradually realised the advantages of having a computer at home. So they bought what they were familiar with: a Windows PC.
Then in 2001 Microsoft launched Windows XP. Although derided nowadays, Windows XP was an advanced operating system for its time, and it was exactly what people - and arguably the internet - needed.
But at this time we still saw computers as utilitarian devices, they weren't personal. People often put them in a spare bedroom and shared one between a family. It was something that people went to to perform a task, then shut it down and went back to, say, the TV, much as they would cook or wash dishes.
That place in our homes where we used to go to the computer. Image from deviantart.com.
Then, as we became more accustomed to and more familiar with technology, and as we came to rely upon it, our internet-connected devices became more personal. And due in part to Apple's bias towards design, we've come to use technology to define our identities while at the same time social media has moved our personas online.
Nowadays computers are no longer a part of the furniture which we go to to use, we take them with us and outwardly show them like our dress sense; they've become as personal to us as music taste.
So it's natural that we no longer want our personal computing devices to remind us of our day jobs: people no longer want to come home to Windows.
And let's not forget Microsoft's past: they've run into great problems with the EU, they forced other browser vendors out of the market by foisting their own, standards-ignorant, features-lacking browser, they have a perceived problem with security (which is probably due to the number of post-update restarts but which is unfortunate because Windows arguably is the most secure of modern operating systems) and speed - again, this last one is arguably not Microsoft's own fault but probably due to the lack of knowledge on the part of most users who had cheaply-bought computers.
But whether these issues were down to Windows' inherent quality or not, Microsoft have an image problem.
This is the lasting image for many people when they think of Microsoft -the hated Internet Explorer 6. Image from winsupersite.com.
Aside from the lack of users, this image problem is almost certainly a part of the reason why most apps have no Windows counterpart. Many of the developers now creating the top-selling apps grew up in the era of Microsoft crowbarring sub-par software on its users (i.e., Internet Explorer) and consequently it's not surprising that these developers have now alienated the platform: they're pioneers in a new marketplace and they don't want to work with the most prominent symbol of the previous generation.
Where do Microsoft go from here?
Let's recap. Microsoft have a mobile platform which has failed to gain adoption; the company has an image problem and in a time when people associate personal technology with their identity, Microsoft has never been less cool.
On the plus side, Windows Phone / Windows 10 Mobile does have a great - probably the best - user interface. Those who use it agree that other platforms look like a backward step.
BlackBerry, once giants of the mobile phone world, have recently moved to Android, abandoning their platform which was once highly-regarded but which failed to gain any momentum amongst app developers.
And I feel that Microsoft must do likewise.
In my opinion, Microsoft should buy Cyanogen.
Image from xda-developers.com.
For those who don't know, Cyanogen produce a custom build of Android, called CyanogenMod, which many prefer over the 'vanilla' build of Android from Google. And whereas the Android handset vendors tend to be sluggish to offer each new iteration of Android, Cyanogen work hard to offer CyanogenMod on a huge range of devices.
Windows Phone / Windows 10 Mobile lacks app whereas Android's marketplace has a plethora of them.
Why not build a version which will run those apps? And I'm not talking about some bridging software because that still requires that developers - many of whom just don't like Microsoft - to do the work... which very few of them will.
So why not take the best third-party build of Android, modified by talented, expert developers, and have them build Microsoft's user interface on top of an underlying Android operating system?
I realise that this means developers won't build the Universal Apps that Microsoft wants them to build, but here's the thing that Microsoft need to realise: they're never going to build them anyway. We've passed that point. It feels like Microsoft are in denial. By adopting Cyanogen Microsoft will only lose a bit of face; by continuing on down the same road they stand to lose a lot more.
I and many other fans of Windows mobile operating system would love everyone else to realise its benefits, adopt the platform and induce a fusillade of apps to be developed for it. But this isn't going to happen; that ship has sailed. And with each month that goes by without Windows 10 Mobile and without enviable and market-influential hardware means an ever-diminishing number of users, and Microsoft's wish just gets more and more unlikely - in fact, it's deeply unlikely that anything else Microsoft could do with Windows 10 Mobile will reverse the downward slide. Microsoft have to realise that they've missed and re-assess their goals.
They can watch people move to another platform or, like BlackBerry, they can pivot with them. If the internet has shown us one thing it's that business who can't pivot will disappear - look at Kodak. In fact, look at Nokia. Times have changed.
To this end, I think we'd all be best-served by Microsoft just buying Cyanogen (or doing something similar very rapidly - too rapidly if Windows 10 Mobile's development is anything to go by) and applying their own UI.
Knowing Microsoft, they'll do half of this: they'll probably buy Cyanogen then pay them to keep building something with the outdated Android UI while spending resources on Windows 10 Mobile themselves.