The Windows Phone story: From hope to dusty abandonware

We stroll down Memory Lane and weep for what might have been

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Why Windows Phone lost

The received wisdom on why Nokia and RIM lost their dominant positions is that they were slow to switch to the new world: RIM refused to acknowledge the world had changed, so wouldn’t make the strategic re-alignments it need to make until too late in the day.

Nokia, meanwhile, which was “full of people who had read the Innovator’s Dilemma” in the words of one former executive, was operationally dysfunctional. Perhaps Android, by being free and so easy to work use for OEMs, would always triumph. Yet 2010 wasn’t a bad time to be launching a new platform, particularly with a huge OEM behind it. Google had no experience of success on mobile platforms.

Windows mobile has actually failed several times since that launch day, because Microsoft wouldn’t act like a startup and make the compromises a startup needs to make.

The platform looked amazing, but was immature. Play to DLNA was included on those launch devices, but there was no clipboard. Businesses wouldn’t get VPN or S/MIME support until three years later. The devices sank without trace.

As David Wood points out in his blockbuster, Nokia knew the platform was lacking, but it had bet on rapid momentum from Microsoft in 2011 and 2012. Elop “Osborned” Symbian. But Redmond then “Osborned” Windows 7 and it would be two years before Nokia could offer a broad competitive lineup. Elop’s former employer left Nokia with nothing to sell, bar a very modest orphan product line.

OEMs regularly complained to us that Terry Myerson’s team refused to “sacrifice the purity” of the Windows Phone design to accommodate phone makers, but ultimately the entire aesthetic was ditched, along with Myerson’s phone ambitions.

However the two lost years between 2011 and 2012 when Microsoft’s platform team worked on “Apollo” – putting WP on a new (NT) kernel with new middleware – effectively Jam tomorrow, the fans were always promised.

Ultimately, Windows Phone was sacrificed for two reasons: one economic, the other political.

The economics had become brutal. Google had improved Android on low cost devices faster than Microsoft could capitalise on its own performance advantages. At the outset, Windows Phone’s only real success had come from undercutting Android with superb value and a superior user experience in emerging markets, where cost mattered, and in mature markets where shoppers wanted a feature phone replacement.

WP gained 10 to 15 per cent market share thanks to these two segments. But the early performance advantage of WP has been all but extinguished. In the sub-$100 device category, people will put up with the odd stutter for the much wider range of apps an Android choice provides. There’s still a lot of “Landfill” Android in the sub-$100 segment, but three years ago, almost every Android below $250 was both underpowered and ugly.

The political reason was that Microsoft had been at war with itself for years. The chaos of the Sinofsky era had allowed something as radical as WP7 to escape into the wild without being killed along the way, as most good ideas at Microsoft are. A Good Thing. But it had taken a toll: nobody at Microsoft could stop an immature Windows 8, Windows RT or the original Surface from being released, either. A Bad Thing.

Nadella decided enough was enough and ordered a complete cultural shift, putting Windows on a unified codebase. Terry Myerson, in a peevish note, blamed corporate “alignment” not being right.

Cheers, and thanks for all the fish

The “Adaptable App” vision that has doomed post-Windows Phone mobile efforts at Microsoft is an idea that sounds great on paper, but in reality so far, has been pretty grim. UWP apps aren’t designed for desktop, tablet or phone, but can adapt to each display size. Predictably, this lowest common denominator approach has been an aesthetic disaster, and aesthetics was about all Windows Phone had going for it by 2014.

We should note that Microsoft has finally hired a distinguished designer – Peter Skillman of Palm, WebOS, Meego, HERE and the excellent “Fastlane” UX used in Nokia’s Asha and Android phones – to try and make a silk purse out of this adaptable but ugly pig’s ear – but the damage has been done.

For all Satya Nadella’s praise of “experiences” – it’s one of his favourite words – the Windows user “experience” on both PC and mobile has become awful.

For its final few months Microsoft loyalists have depended on Intel providing the power for a Continuum phone that could run x86 apps too. But that prospect disappeared with Intel tearing up its 4G chip roadmap.

Microsoft no longer seems a fertile environment for crazy experiments – although that surely offers more hope.

Only when I opened up the USB wristband did I remember one thing about the WP7 launch that everyone’s forgotten. Stephen Fry leaped on stage to endorse it. Given his anti-Midas touch (Pushnote, Playback Rewards) we should have known then it didn’t stand a chance. ®

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