The death of Windowsphone
Windowsphone actually “died” a couple of years ago. After Steve Ballmer, the previous CEO of Microsoft, bought Nokia for $7.2 billion you might have assumed that Microsoft was serious about mobile. However Microsoft had little choice. Nokia had made Windowsphone it’s primary operating system and now had 98% of the Windowsphone market. If Nokia’s phone division had just gone bankrupt or made Android handsets then Windowsphone would have ended in 2014.
Nokia had done a pretty good job for Microsoft. Good industrial design, striking colours, double digit market share in places like Europe, South America and Asia where Nokia was a known brand and Microsoft had neglected. Nokia’s handsets had great cameras and additional apps that added value to the device. Nokia had teams of designers and specialists that knew how to make mobile hardware. Microsoft, on the other hand, struggled to sell Windowsphone in their US home market, contantly re-booted the operating system making older handsets incompatible, re-branded services, failed to create a mobile payments system and undermined developers with a poor quality app store and changing developer tools frequently. It seems astonishing that the weaker partner in Windowsphone, in terms of product development and innovation, was Microsoft.
Spending $7.2 billion dollars was not universally popular in the Microsoft board room. The current CEO, Sataya Nadella, in his book “Hit Refresh”, says he did not support the decision to buy Nokia. However after becoming CEO he said that Microsoft would continue to support phone, even when the evidence was not showing Microsoft had confidence in their own phone business. In 2015 Microsoft did launch the Lumia 950/950 XL flagship phones on a very iffy Windows 10 Mobile OS. This was the 3rd reboot of the OS itself and reviewers found the speed of the device as great but it showed none of the flare of the Nokia designs and the OS frequently crashed or froze. Developers had not embraced the UWP (Universal Windows Platform) to develop apps and most store apps were compatible with previous generations of Windowsphone. Microsoft watchers pointed out a shift in language. Microsoft talked about mobile experiences, applications on any device and not just Windowsphone, they wound down their efforts to get developers specifically on board with mobile and Terry Myerson, the chief of the Windows division, said that Microsoft was not “focused” on phone in 2016.
Joe Belfiore, the Vice President at Microsoft, most associated with presentations of Windowsphone and AI assistant Cortana, took a one year leave of absence in late 2015. Belfiore was then spotted using iphone and Android devices as he did a world tour with his family. Whether intentional or not, Belfiore’s absence seemed to coincide with what Windowsphone users dubbed “retrenchment”. Despite announcements of getting manufacturers to create new Windowsphones few stepped up. The most significant was a business phone from HP called the Elite X3. However little effort seemed to be made by Microsoft. Although the Windows 10 Mobile was now being updated over time and many early bugs had been removed the damage to the brand and device range by Microsoft’s almost casual approach to phone was being done. Device prices were lowered and by early 2017 Microsoft had no flagship phone offering for 2016 or 2017.
Rumours emerged among Windows blog sites of a “Surface Phone” device coming that would be branded with the Microsoft line of Surface devices. However nothing was announced. Windows 10 Mobile OS was put into maintenance bug fix releases called “feature2”. The feature2 branch had one major characteristic – it had no feature improvements just bug fixes.
No one at Microsoft would officially say “Windowsphone is over”. The language used was vague commitments to mobile experiences, supporting mobile, or having a mobile strategy. Most recently the strategy seems to be to release apps on every other platform. At the same time Microsoft, as a business, providing cloud services and enterprise software has never been so successful. Suddenly, in an answer on Twitter, Joe Belfiore pops up to admit phone is over. Ironically this meant Windowsphone got more news coverage than it had for months.
This isn’t actually the end of the story. If Microsoft really mean it then potentially they have killed a whole platform area that they might need. The problem for Microsoft is that AI assistants are viable only by being everywhere. If Cortana is pushed only into the PC then that is an issue. Machine learning requires lots of queries from people. Not having any mobile device means you need to rely on people taking the additional step of installing your AI assistant over the native one. If consumers are buying devices primarily stacked with Google and Apple services then how do you hook them into your services.
There was no magic bullet or key act that would have kept Windowsphone going but Microsoft’s sequence of late to market devices, constant reboots, lack of serious marketing muscle, failure to capitalise on Nokia strengths and much more sunk their phones. On the other hand, a more modest business concentrating on their strong regions like Europe and South America may have kept them in the game. I think being in first-party mobile devices may well be essential for the success of the new technologies that will, in my view, be largely about mobile.