Editorial

What happened to Windows Phone?

It’s been almost 3 years since Microsoft’s mobile OS officially got a major reboot in the form of Windows Phone 7, and it’s been even longer since we saw the first glimpses of this modern OS, no pun intended, back at Mobile World Congress in 2010.

On paper Windows Phone seems like the best thing to happen to humanity since sliced bread and the end of the Black Plague, or at the very least the best thing that could ever happen to Windows Mobile. When it launched it was, and still is today, a very fresh operating system, with a beautiful, bold, original and “authentically digital” UI. It was the only mobile OS to offer Microsoft Office which the enterprise should have drooled over. It was the only mobile OS to offer Xbox Games, a complete sell for gamers and enthusiasts. It was also simple and mostly intuitive, launching on a plethora of devices in a ton of countries. Oh and let’s not forget that it was backed by Microsoft, one of the biggest companies in history with virtually unlimited money and reach.

So why is it that, three years later, this seemingly perfect OS accounts for just 3% of the market? What happened over the years that prevented Windows Phone from taking the world by storm?

New beginnings

Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 because their previous efforts on Windows Mobile had proven completely unsuccessful in fighting the iPhone’s incredible appeal. Android was also part of the scene and Google was clearly focused on winning this race, so Microsoft had no choice but to start from scratch and come up with something awesome.

And while they did partially come up with something great, they based their whole brand new OS on Windows Mobile, more precisely on Windows CE. This in turn led to limited capabilities of the OS and a spec deficiency that’s still obvious to this day.

Let’s not forget the fact that this being a new OS, it launched on completely new devices and left all of Microsoft’s previous customers out in the cold. Of course this was the right choice in this situation from a business standpoint but people still felt disgruntled.

And 2 years later Microsoft did it all over again. By launching WP7 on CE, they basically condemned all of those devices and customers when they moved to NT in Windows Phone 8. Remember that brand new Lumia 900 that you just bought because “the smartphone beta test is over”? Yeah, congrats it’s obsolete. In fact it was already obsolete before it was announced or conceived. NT was always supposed to be the future, but CE had to be used for a while until WP8 was ready.

I used to argue that this move was necessary. That without launching Windows Phone 7 first, WP8 would have been DOA due to a complete lack of apps and no prior exposure for Microsoft’s UI and design ideas. However I’m no longer convinced by my own argument, and I wonder if waiting another year to launch a fully-fledged NT-based Windows Phone 7.5 wouldn’t have benefited Microsoft a lot more than continuously having to update and support what have become two mobile operating systems.

Specs

Brand new 41Mpx camera - year old Qualcomm S4 CPU

Any Windows Phone user will tell you that most specs are completely meaningless and we have to give an insane amount of props to Microsoft for making that statement a reality when it comes to Windows Phones.

The Redmond company has managed to create an extremely well optimized OS that runs perfectly smooth and lag-free on all devices from the lowest specced Lumia 610 to the most powerful 1020.

But early adopters, geeks and dare I say it, us tech-journos don’t care that much about wider availability of devices or reducing to the lowest denominator. We want the best, the newest the most powerful OCTA CORE HYPERTHREADING OVERCLOCKED i7 processor and a week of battery life if that’s possible.

So when folks first saw the specs on Windows Phone devices they were disappointed and they’ve been disappointed ever since. Windows Phone devices have consistently lagged when it comes to the newest specs, and even though they don’t need them, users want them.

Take a look at Nokia’s latest devices to see what I mean. They’re incredible wonderful devices and yet they still rely on the same one year-old CPUs and screens. When Windows Phone finally got 720p screens, Android was already moving to 1080p. When Windows Phone finally got dual-core, Android was already moving to quad-core.

And don’t get me wrong I know Windows Phones, as opposed to Androids, don’t need those specs to run properly, but the marketing department sure could use them. Speaking of which…

Marketing

Or more exactly the lack of marketing. Since its launch, despite the fact that many companies involved with Windows Phone have promised to heavily invest in its marketing, none have actually made any sort of splash, and that includes Microsoft itself.

Until very recently, read the launch of Windows Phone 8 and the Nokia Lumia 920, the marketing efforts for this OS have been minimal. Remember when Ralph de la Vega of AT&T said they’re committing alongside Microsoft an enormous amount of money to make sure the new WP7 OS would be known to the public? Remember when the Lumia 900 was AT&T’s hero device and operation “Rolling Thunder” was in full swing? Neither do we. Those efforts were half-arsed at best, and they produced little to no results.

And while the marketing budget was spent in the States with virtually zero results, Europe and the rest of the world got two banners and that’s it. Oh, we also got Deadmau5 in London but that was a one time thing and did little to sell any phones.

Instead of focusing on a saturated rich market that’s very hard to penetrate, such as the States, Microsoft and its OEMs should have focused from the start on the rest of world. Instead of going premium they should have gone low-end. They’re actually implementing this very strategy right now with the Lumia 520, 625, etc and it’s proving to be a massive success. So why not do it earlier? Probably because Microsoft thought it could do with Windows Phone what Apple did with the first iPhone.

OEMs and the Nokia factor

If one goes through the original press release that announced Windows Phone 7, one would be amazed by how many companies had promised to support the platform and release handsets in the short-term. Let me reiterate that list for you: Dell, Garmin-Asus, HTC Corp., HP, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Toshiba. Meaning everybody that was somebody in the smartphone and computer scenes was going along with Microsoft for the ride.

By the time the actual launch came, that list was severely narrowed down to Dell, HTC, Samsung and LG. And as you well know, Dell barely launched its own device and then gave up, with LG doing pretty much the same a short time later leaving Windows Phone in the hands of HTC, a great Microsoft partner in the past, and Samsung an eager company with a ton of resources that was just starting to see its first real returns in the Android market. And while Samsung kept Windows Phone at arm’s length and continued to rake in the market share and the money on the Android front, HTC flip-flopped all around the place like a dying fish, putting out an insane amount of crappy mediocre devices for both Android and Windows Phone. None of those stuck.

Enter Nokia. The once high and mighty company chose Windows Phone and Microsoft because of promised preferential treatment as well as lack of competition from other OEMs and lack of OS fragmentation in the market.

Nokia made mistakes of their own such as going after the US market and the high-end demographic, with the Lumia 800 and later the 900, both of which were sub-par devices when you compare them with the iPhones and Galaxys of their day.

Despite that, they’re finally learning their lesson and they are the only Windows Phone OEM to constantly put out high quality devices at a myriad of price points and with a lot of reach. It took a long time for them to learn this game and to finally make the transition to this new way of doing things, but they did it and their numbers are improving every quarter. Huawei, a new member of the Windows Phone family, is taking the same approach and it's working for them too. Windows Phone seems destined to find its success in the low-end of the market.

However, Nokia is a double edged sword. With the hold they now have on Windows Phone, much like the hold Samsung has on Android, they have become a clear reason for other OEMs to stay away from the platform. So even if, say Sony, wanted to come back to the fold and launch a Windows Phone device they’d have nothing to compete with but build quality and price – and Nokia is acing both of those.

Plus, Nokia has fragmented the Windows Phone ecosystem in a tiny way. They’re bringing value to the OS by launching their own software for the platform in the form of HERE services and awesome camera apps, but they’re also getting a lot of exclusive game titles and apps. And that makes me, as an HTC 8X user, very jealous and willing to switch to a Lumia. And that makes HTC very unhappy, and very desperate, and instead of actually fixing things, by let’s say adding their own exclusive titles to the mix, they keep jumping from platform to platform like a crazed Mario on a bad mushroom trip.

The bottom line is that Nokia is a net positive for Windows Phone right now, but that’s only because of the dire state the OS is in terms of OEM support. Healthy competition all the way and a better distribution of market share would have made the whole ecosystem that much stronger.

Microsoft being Microsoft

There’s one more factor at play here and it’s a big one; Microsoft itself. We’re looking at a new, inspired, fluid, beautiful and fast OS and it comes from the company that launched the Kin phone and killed it a few days later, the company that launched Vista and fixed it a few years later by launching a new OS.

Microsoft is itself in a transition as we have rightly noted so many times before, and this transition pretty much started with Windows Phone 7. The company hasn’t yet figured out how to put out yearly updates for its major products, it hasn't yet figured out how to ship a super polished product and then keep adding on to it in a fast-release cycle.

They’re getting there, but slowly. Far too slow for the incredibly fast paced smartphone race and too slow for us, the customers. Sure, I can argue to you that all the GDRs are incredibly important and that this is a solid foundation for future devices and Windows Phone 8.1, but at the end of the day our phones haven’t received any major updates in a very long time. And the competition is in no way standing still.

Images courtesy of Microsoft, Nokia, Daily Billboard Blog, and my hardworking colleagues !

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