I think it’s pretty fair to say that counting Microsoft out in a market it has made a commitment to is a classic rookie mistake that serves as the epitaph for too many forgotten companies. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again is a time-honored mantra in Redmond. And it’s pretty evident that Windows Phone is one of those areas where Microsoft has made big commitments – including but hardly limited to its $7.2 billion purchase of Nokia’s phone business – and where the company is on the record as committed to try try again.
But I think it’s time to call Windows Phone for what it is, a failed experiment, at least in the US market, that will have huge repercussions across the company. And the biggest impact may be on Windows 10 and one of its main selling points: a single platform that spans mobile, desktop, server, and cloud. Without a strong mobile phone offering from Microsoft, it may be hard for Windows 10 to take advantage of one of its strongest competitive advantages against Apple’s and Google’s platform dreams.
The death of Windows Phone won’t necessarily dent demand for Windows 10 on the desktop, but maintaining market share in PCs isn’t what the Windows 10 offering is all about. It’s a platform play, one that Microsoft hopes will help make up for the fact that monopolizing the PC market isn’t going to cut it anymore. Indeed, Satya Nadella and company have to grab a much bigger prize: Microsoft needs the next generation apps that span mobile, desktop, server and cloud to run on Windows 10, or the company’s dreams of future glory will evaporate – which, unfortunately, is what the Windows Phone market is doing as we speak.
This is, ironically, a failure that isn’t about technology or user experience – Windows Phone meets or exceeds the current competition in both categories, and its technological prospects as a key mobile device in the Windows 10 strategy are undeniable. (And I say this as a current, but soon to be former, Windows Phone user who genuinely likes the phone and thinks many aspects of its usability are far better, or at least theoretically far better, than iPhone and Android.)
But, technology and user experience can only take you so far. If Windows Phone has lost the carrier and user acceptance battle to IOS and Android, and I think it definitively has, then the Windows Phone saga is another rare, cautionary tale about how many second chances even Microsoft can get before it’s time to pack it in and call it a day.
So how dead is Windows Phone in the US? Let me count the ways.
Perhaps the most damning factor against Windows Phone comes from the #1 US carrier, Verizon, which as far as I can tell, is largely exiting the Windows Phone market. The evidence is pretty compelling: Verizon has basically stalled any plans for updating its Windows Phones, including my year-old Nokia 928, and while there are four Windows phones for sale on its website, only one is offered with the latest operating system, Windows Phone 8.1, and its very compelling and competitive voice system, Cortana. (Ed Bott of ZDNet takes aim at Verizon as well for its unsupport of Windows Phone.)
This isn’t about time, it’s about focus: The new OS has been out for six months, more than time enough to get it into the hands of customers. (By contrast, IOS has had two upgrades in the same time, and a third, IOS 8.2, just entered beta last month.) Verizon clearly couldn’t be bothered about upgrading Windows Phone.
As a survivor of the two previous Windows Phone incarnations (I know, fool me once, shame on me, fool me three times….), this is another case of déjà vu all over again. For those of you smart enough to stay away from Windows Phone, the worst, by far, of the many reasons why Windows Phone 6.5 and Windows Phone 7 were a marketing and technological mess was that there was no upward compatibility from Windows Phone 6.5 to 7, or from 7 to 8. Microsoft effectively stranded owners of these previous phone operating systems, offering their new functionality to new customers (often at a discount), and punishing those foolish enough to have been existing customers by forcing them to pay the piper to break their contracts and get the new functionality.
That lack of compatibility, and the unreliability of Microsoft as a purveyor of modern cell phone operating systems that this evinced, was one of many reasons Windows Phone 8 started its journey trying to crawl its way out of a self-inflicted death spiral. The fact that that the biggest carrier in the U.S. (with 44 percent market share) is repeating the past and leaving its Windows Phone 8 customers high and dry puts the reliability of Microsoft as a smart phone supplier further in question. (And even if there were a compelling reason for not upgrading six months after Windows 8.1 was released to carriers, it’s clear that Verizon doesn’t think it necessary to tell its Windows Phone customers what is happening and when, if ever, they should expect an upgrade. They instead tell customers to ask Nokia, even though technically Nokia can’t release an OS upgrade to a carrier’s customers without going through the carrier. Can you say Catch-22?)
Meanwhile, the evidence that the answer from Verizon about when Windows Phone 8.1 will be available is never, or least some distant unforeseeable point in the future, can be seen in a recent Sunday newspaper insert from Verizon(the Winter, 2014 edition). The insert is notable for the fact that there is nary a Windows phone in it. (Nor are any of the tablets in the insert Windows tablets either.) So no Windows phones for the big holiday season from the #1 carrier? That’s gotta hurt.
More evidence? Last month Verizon stopped selling the Nokia Lumia 1050 (to the surprise of the call center rep I spoke with recently, who was sure it was still being offered.) Nokia/Microsoft, meanwhile, still thinks Verizon is selling three of its phones to customers, including the Icon and the 822, at least according to the Nokia website. Not.
The rest of the US carrier market is barely any better. Sprint is offering has a single Windows phone, but it doesn’t run Windows Phone 8.1, and TMobile has two, both of which run Windows Phone 8.1. AT&T is the biggest supporter, with four Windows Phone offerings, all of which run the new operating system (something tells me AT&T has the corporate contract with Microsoft in the US.)
Nokia has similar delusions about how many Windows phones these US carriers are selling. The website shows that T-Mobile is selling four of its phones, and AT&T seven. At least it doesn’t list any Sprint phones (the Sprint Windows 8 phone is an HTC.)
This inability of Microsoft/Nokia to cover even 50 percent of US market is, of course, a reflection of an intractable problem with Windows Phone – the app gap. As of last summer, there were over 202,000 Windows Phone apps, as opposed to over 900,000 iPhone apps and over 850,000 for Android, a pretty glaring gap. This isn’t just about having compelling apps in volume and variety, it’s also about the regular humiliation of arriving at conferences and other events and not being able to download the conference apps, which are never offered for Windows Phone except at Microsoft events. The app gap, unfortunately, seems at this point to be completely insurmountable.
The Impact on Windows 10
So, with the carriers exiting Windows Phone or largely uninterested, and the app gap accelerating beyond the point of no return, the question of what happens to Windows 10 comes into question. There is no doubt that all enterprise software development is in full mobile first mode, it’s a mantra you hear from every vendor, Microsoft included. But if the main mobile platform for Windows can’t be relied upon to have a decent market share (which it clearly doesn’t have, having scraped up a little over 3 percent market share recently, putting it in a statistical dead heat with Blackberry, emphasis on dead) as well as a critical mass of carriers who will actively support the operating system and its users, the native mobile advantage of Windows 10 goes by the wayside.
This is more important than it may seem. While HTML5 and various mobile development platforms offer developers the ability to run their apps on any device, native development in the phone’s OS is emerging as the gold standard for mobile app development. This is even more critical in the enterprise, where key usability, security, and privacy issues are increasingly seen as best handled in native mode.
That’s where the Windows 10 promise potentially meets its doom, particularly in the enterprise, which I once thought was the last great hope of Windows Phone. Once upon a time. If I’m developing a killer app for my company, one that has to span mobile and desktop and server and cloud, Windows 10 looks pretty compelling until I factor in the problem of Windows Phone.
My killer app certainly won’t have a BYOD user base on Windows Phone, and it’s hard to imagine a US company standardizing on Windows Phone if there’s really only one carrier who is effectively supporting it. At which point, considering all development is mobile-first, I as a developer would have to ask myself why I’m using a platform – Windows 10 – that requires me to break out of its monolithic development model and start coding for IOS and Android. If I’m not able to build an app on a single code base, because that code base doesn’t give me access to the mobile phones my users are using, then maybe I don’t need to look at Windows 10 at all. It certainly takes a key advantage of Windows 10 off the table before it even gets started.
Microsoft could always offer to run Android apps on its phone, an idea that has been floated before (Mary Jo Foley wrote about the notion, however farfetched, this earlier this year.) But that would just allow the developer trying to reach the greatest number of users to opt for the Android platform and let some compatibility option handle the few Windows Phone users in the market.
It’s a sad moment when a truly great technology is put out to pasture, but, heck, the mobile phone market is one big lesson in the vagaries of technology leadership and failure. Remember Symbian, the dominant market leader of 2009? Palm? Blackberry? Can you believe that iPhone is only four years old?
The bottom line is that technology sh*t happens faster in mobile than almost any other market, and so far there’s never been a second act. I wish there was one for Windows Phone, and maybe some non-US market may be the place. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, Microsoft and Windows 10 are going to have to make it without a strong mobile phone product. That’s only going to make Satya Nadella’s already tough job that much harder.