Earlier this week Microsoft wrote off their $7.6bn purchase of Nokia's handset division, the entity responsible for over 96% of Windows Phone sales. Does this prove that Windows Phone has been a failure? No. I think the failure lies with the corporate side of Microsoft, not with the operating system, and nor with the de facto handset manufacturer.

I used to think that Windows Phone was the best mobile operating system. When it was launched back in 2010 it showed a user interface that was brand new and perfect for a palm-held device: while iOS and Android still follow that age-old model of desktop icons which you tap to open an app, Microsoft produced a UI which showed you what you wanted to know without needing to open the app. It was colourful, intuitive, fun, it moved and made you want to watch it. And that was just the homescreen.

But in 2015 I would no longer argue that it's the best mobile operating system. At this point all I can argue is that it has the best UI.

Microsoft had a great idea, an amazing product, and they put it out there and then did nothing with it.

Apple releases a major update for iOS once a year, and they do it with much fanfare and aplomb, and they hold a developer conference to go with it. Google releases at least one major update for Android each year.

So what have Microsoft done with Windows Phone since it launched in 2010? Virtually nothing. Laughably little.

Windows Phone 7

Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 in November 2010, announcing several hardware partners at the same time.

An HTC Titan, unveiled during the launch of Windows Phone 7. Image from Wikipedia.

A year later came the much-awaited Mango update, which provided disappointingly few features: it gave Internet Explorer the same web standards capabilities as its desktop equivalent, and added Windows Live SkyDrive (later renamed OneDrive. Neither of those two features were going to convert anyone from a competitive platform.

But Microsoft didn't rest on their e-laurels. No. Mango was followed a year later by the Tango update. And as if Mango failed to convert anyone, Tango simply contained bug fixes and allowed Windows Phone to be installed on lower-end devices. Wow. Here we are, 2 years after launch and nothing has been added to help Windows Phone catch up with the competition. In the same period Android went through multiple major versions: from Froyo to Gingerbread (February 2011), Ice Cream Sandwich (December 2011), and then Jelly Bean (July 2012).

Unsurprisingly, market share of Windows Phone 7, despite the Mango and Tango updates, remained flat. At a minuscule percentage.

To add insult to boredom, around the end of 2012 or start of 2013 Microsoft announced that Windows Phone 8 would not run on the same hardware as Windows Phone 7. That's right, as a way of thanking the faithful who had sat through 2 years of disappointing, feature-lacking updates, Microsoft told them that they'd have to drop a few hundred more £$€ if they wanted the next update.

Enter stage left: Nokia

For many years Nokia ploughed their own furrow with Symbian, their mobile operating system which was wildly popular until the iPhone came along.

When former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop joined Nokia as their first non-Finnish CEO in 2010, they weren't merely behind the curve, they were well and truly off the curve: the next version of Symbian, in development for years, was still some way off, and the company was haemorrhaging money. Shortly afterwards Elop issued his now-famous "burning platform" memo (platform meaning operating system), and it's hard to disagree with what he wrote.

Elop onstage at the launch of Windows Phone 8 with then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Image from digitaltrends.com.

For what it's worth, I agreed with their next move at the time and I still think it makes sense today: Nokia had an enormous reputation as the builder of the best handsets, but they desperately needed a smartphone OS and had failed to produce one by themselves in that time. They were now about to go out of business. They could either go with the same Android OS that everyone else was using in a now-crowded marketplace, or they could distinguish themselves, stand out from the crowd and show something different.

And so it was that Nokia got into bed with Microsoft and their fledgling Windows Phone 7.

Windows Phone 8

In the autumn of 2012 Microsoft finally unveiled a proper update: Windows Phone 8. At last, here was the version which was going to rival iOS and Android.

Well... not yet. Not at launch. Perhaps with another update or two.

Windows Phone 8: the interface looked great, but the interface was never the problem with Windows Phone. Image from trustedreviews.com.

It took Microsoft a whole 18 months to deliver the first update, Windows Phone 8.1. Feature-packed? Well, it did come with a new version of Internet Explorer, for all that that mattered, and if your screen was large enough then you could add some more tiles (updatable icons) to the home screen. But the changes were mostly under the bonnet: Microsoft were angling to entice more handset manufacturers to push Windows Phone devices, so they'd made the hardware requirements more compatible with Android devices.

But the handset manufacturers weren't interested. And why should they be? You see, in all the time Windows Phone had been available, Microsoft had done almost nothing to push it. Sure, I can remember seeing some TV adverts when Windows Phone was first launched, but that's about it. I honestly couldn't tell you the last time I saw any sort of promotion for Windows Phone. iOS and Android, on the other hand, are hard to avoid. Microsoft were at this time expecting handset manufacturers to pay them a license fee to install their mobile operating system, while the handset manufacturer would then have to promote it.

Here's an example of Microsoft's tardiness: Windows Phone 8.1, launched in April 2014, added Cortana, a voice-enabled assistant in the same vein as Apple's Siri or Google Now. The problem? At launch Cortana was only available in the US. A nice touch, I thought, considering the already-widespread availability of Cortana's competitors.

At the time of writing this post (14 months after Cortana's launch), Cortana is currently officially available in 3 markets: English (US), English (UK), and Mandarin Chinese.

Again: wow, Microsoft. Wow. Such development pace.

I live in one of the most technologically-developed parts of the world, in an economically rich country with a high reliance on technology, and I myself have still neither seen nor heard Cortana.

So once again, Microsoft, why should people buy Windows Phone 8? Why should other handset manufacturers produce these devices?

A Trojan Horse?

Many foresaw Elop's and Nokia's adoption of Windows Phone as a precursor to a Microsoft buyout, some calling Elop a trojan horse. Whether this was true or not, Nokia's sales were heading downhill fast and something had to change. Nokia's next problem became that Windows Phone didn't really do much to solve this problem.

What Microsoft now had, however, was a reputable handset manufacturer who had declared they were 'all in' with Windows Phone; Nokia would live or die on the success of Microsoft's mobile platform.

And what did Microsoft do to bolster Windows Phone's appeal? Aside from throwing money at them, remarkably little.

In my opinion, Nokia's sales problem wasn't down to a lack of great handsets. It wasn't even down to a lack of a great operating system. It was simply that so few people knew about it, Microsoft having done so little to promote it, add features which are commonplace on the other mobile platforms, or to keep it updated. In a word, Windows Phone's development has been stagnant, and its marketing rode out of town a long time ago.

Customers aren't being made aware of it, while at the same time Microsoft are dragging their feet in providing new features which the manufacturers can show off.

An example: Nokia produced a groundbreaking mobile camera in its Lumia 1020 model. This really is a staggeringly good camera with stunning technology inside it which left other handset manufacturers years behind. And how did they tell the public about it? TV adverts in every commercial break? Full-page magazine promotions? Celebrity endorsement? None of the above. Period.

The Nokia Lumia 2010 - a phone with a groundbreadking camera... which died on its feet. Image from www.myhox.com.

As I write this article, it turns out that today is actually the 2nd anniversary of the Lumia 1020's launch. My boss has one of these phones and over the past couple of years I may have seen one or two others, but that's it. People are snapping photos every second of every day on their phones, many of them having left behind dedicated cameras and using only those on their phones. So why aren't more people using this incredible camera?

Because so few people know about it and the operating system it comes with.

The Buyout and the Write-off

In April 2014 it was announced that Microsoft would acquire Nokia's devices and services division for $7.2bn, thus bringing handset production in-house.

Interestingly, there had been lots of chatter at this time about Microsoft doing just this, or alternatively purchasing the ailing BlackBerry.

And here we are in July 2015 with Microsoft announcing a $7.6bn write-off due to lack of handset sales. The BBC's technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, suggests that Microsoft should have bought BlackBerry instead of Nokia. I'm not sure I agree with this. Buying BlackBerry would have been a great idea (and still might be) for different reasons, given enterprise's penchant for these devices, but once Nokia had decided to go all-in with Windows Phone and once it became apparent that this wasn't going to turn things around for them, what would have been the future of Windows Phone had Microsoft abandoned the manufacturer of 96% of those sold devices? One could argue that Microsoft should have bought Nokia earlier, or at the same time but not paid $7.2bn for a company which was clearly going out of business.

But either way, Microsoft should certainly have put more effort into marketing their product.

The Future of the Range

There has been a lot of speculation this past week about the future of Windows Phone, with some commentators believing that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's recent announcement spells out an ending to their mobile OS (according to Paul Thurrott and Tom Warren at The Verge). For what it's worth, I don't interpret Nadella's remarks the same way; I read that they're simply trimming the product line.

And I consider that to be a good thing.

I've been of the opinion for the past few years that Nokia, and then Microsoft, have simply had too many devices. While Apple used to offer a single device, then recently widened that 'range' to include two different screen sizes, let me broadly enumerate what Nokia/Microsoft currently offer (i.e., excluding those devices which have been superseded): there's the 435, the 532, the 535, the 540,the 640, the 640 XL, the 735, the 830, the 930, the 1020, the Icon, the 1320, and the 1520. I'm sorry if I've omitted any from that current list, it's difficult to keep track.

From my interpretation of this week's announcement, I believe Microsoft are simply going to be reducing this line to three devices.

We’ll bring business customers the best management, security and productivity experiences they need; value phone buyers the communications services they want; and Windows fans the flagship devices they’ll love.

So it looks like a needed change is being made. But for Windows Phone to not lose any further market share Microsoft need to put a lot more effort into two areas:

  • Marketing. Tell people about Windows Phone - particularly those upcoming features, especially Continuum.
  • Windows Phone must be more frequently updated - it's been behind its competitors since it was launched and development has been slower than its competitors.

I still think that Microsoft had to buy Nokia's handset division because the alternative would have spelt the end for Windows Phone. I feel that the recent write-off of the purchase amount has been misconstrued as the purchase being a huge financial mistake but like I said, Nokia was going out of business so Microsoft did what it had to in order to keep their mobile operating system alive.

However...

...It's getting increasingly difficult to defend Windows Phone - let alone recommend it - if even Microsoft apparently don't love their child. I happen to think Windows Phone has a huge amount of potential, but it does require attention from Microsoft, not the handset manufacturers. If Microsoft build a great mobile OS then the manufacturers will build the devices. And it's the combination that sells.

That's why I see this is a squandered opportunity: Microsoft could have had the greatest mobile OS, but they launched it and then did nothing with it; Microsoft had a company building great handsets for their mobile OS but again, what was this company to do with a mobile OS that wasn't incrementing. In an attempt to keep the public's attention the handset manufacturer had to keep releasing ever cheaper handsets - handsets which no-one was interested in.

The way I see it, Nokia did their part, it was Microsoft that let them down. Then they bought Nokia, laid off most of the staff, did nothing except launch another low-price handset at a time when everyone was looking for better software, then laid off the rest of the former Nokia staff. And finally they publicly wrote-off the corporate purchase.

Nice touch, Microsoft.

What a squandered opportunity.