The (Real) Death of Windows Phone, American-style (Part II)

Continued from my last post.

(When we last left our tragic hero, Windows Phone, there was no carrier support for the new Lumias that just hit the market, which means…)

The only other option for die-hard Windows Phone users in the US, an unlocked phone bought directly from Microsoft, may not work either. Verizon doesn’t really support unlocked phones, due to its use of CDMA technology, and I doubt they will do so with new Windows Phones – what would their incentive be? Meaning that you won’t be able to buy an unlocked Windows 10 phone and use it on the Verizon network unless it’s a Verizon Windows 10 phone running CDMA, which right now puts us back in the conundrum of having no flagship Windows Phone to choose from as a Verizon customer. (Riddle: which came first? The dead chicken or the rotten egg?)

Microsoft has been holding out hope that two factors could still redeem Windows Phone, and partially redeem the money and pride that have been lost in equal amounts over this fiasco. The first is the prospect for a business-focused market for Windows Phone, the second is a market outside of the US, particularly in emerging markets and other places where it’s possible to sell lots of relatively cheap phones to millions of net-new users who have yet to drink the iOS or Android koolaid.

The business market in the US would have been a good place to focus a few years ago in the run up to Windows 10, but that opportunity may have already come and gone, at least the opportunity to play market leader. Window 10 does present some great opportunities to create a new slew of devices for enterprise-heavy tasks – pick and pack for warehouse management, all sorts of monitoring devices for healthcare, field service support devices, etc. And I think that opportunity still exists, considering the current lack of a solid contender to replace the now venerable (as in outmoded) Windows CE, which dominates this slice of the enterprise market.

But it would have helped significantly if the Windows Phone team had deigned to keep its partners in the loop about a roadmap for replacing older, Windows CE devices. Instead, the glorious silence it was sharing with the market remains another example of the ham-fisted strategies that defined why the death of Windows Phone was largely the result of friendly fire.

And the friendly fire came from the most potent weapon in Microsoft’s friendly fire arsenal: the internal silo. Windows Phone for years was developed and taken to market by one of the most tightly controlled silos in a company famous for its silos.

Two examples – when Office 365 first came out, there was no native way to sync a Windows Phone (this was back in the Windows Phone 6.5 days, lord preserve us) to Outlook running on a desktop, at least that was the official word from the Office team. This lacuna was so pitiful that the Office folks recommended using Google to sync up a Windows Phone to Office, making it a three-way sync that was beyond belief.

Then one day I was getting a briefing from the team that developed the then-brand new Office 365 service. In the middle of the briefing they let slip that a $6/month subscription to O365 came with a fully functional online Exchange server. Which meant there was a simple way to sync a Windows Phone that also gave users a great reason to use O365, not use Google, and it cost, at least for year one, just a little more than the third party sync tool I had been considering buying. Did the O365 team know that Windows Phone had a problem they could solve? Did Windows Phone ever broadcast the fact that O365 came with a solution to the sync problem? If you answered no to both you win the Silo Award.

Second example, more to the point about Windows Phone and business users. Several months before the first Windows Phone 8 was slated to come out in 2012, I met with someone on the Microsoft Dynamics team who was in possession of a Windows Phone running the new OS in beta. After showing me the phone he turned it over and showed me the tag that phone people had placed on it as a means of tightly controlling who was allowed to use it. This was the only phone available for the Dynamics team to play with, and it was only available for a very short time before it had to be given back (or the tag would explode and blind the recalcitrant user, or something like that.) Did this mean that Dynamics was able to do lots of development on the new phone and its OS, thus setting up an important synergy between the phone side and the enterprise side? Did anyone at Windows Phone think there was anything wrong with this? No and no. More Silo Awards.

Moral of the story – Windows Phone blew some pretty important chances to build synergy with the two parts of Microsoft that were in direct touch with business users. I’d like to think that a little closer cooperation might have meant Windows Phone would have at least been positioned as a killer business phone at a time when Blackberry was foundering and it may still have been possible to make a dent in the iPhone and Android duopoly.

Windows Phone also missed an opportunity with business users to at least make a case of Windows 10 and the cross-device experience. Even as the Windows 10 promise was being widely touted, there was no attempt to lead by example and develop that killer business app that spanned desktop, tablet and phone. And don’t tell me Skype or Office fit the requirement – I’m talking about something new and cool, not something old and somewhat cooler-ish. As I wrote last spring, by the time the Build developers’ conference took place in April, despite the hullabaloo about the Windows 10 opportunity, a half-way sanguine look at the messaging and the sessions in the conference showed that Windows Phone was conspicuous largely by its absence.

So, while Apple and Google probably stopped even caring years ago, it’s a sad moment for all when good technology dies for want of good marketing and positioning. A sanguine look at the market from a consumer or business point of view would show that no one will be spending a lot of time in mourning. And maybe, as Microsoft asserts, Windows Phone will see its market share amount to something respectable in Asia and other high-growth markets. Though I doubt it: the diminution of the former Nokia’s phone sales volume will hinder Microsoft’s efforts at maintaining the low-cost supply chain needed to compete in the volume part of the market: rivals selling orders of magnitude more phones will be able to command pricing and delivery schedules orders of magnitude more favorable than those of a now crippled Lumia product line. Economies of scale will kill Lumia, if carrier neglect and a lack of apps doesn’t.

In the end, the fact that Satya Nadella has some plausible deniability in the aftermath of his regime’s first big, and I mean big, flop, offers scant comfort. There was a lot more than just a few billion dollars riding on Windows Phone, and while it’s definitely not dead – heck, Blackberry is still in the game somehow – the glorious prospects for Windows Phone are no more.

Luckily for Microsoft there’s still the HoloLens.  Now if that’s doesn’t induce tech market envy from Microsoft and Google then they’re not paying attention. It might even make up for the Windows Phone disaster. One day.

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