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Windows 10 turns five years old today: Mobile edition

Today, Windows 10 turns five years old, and while I wrote a whole article about how it's evolved over those years, there's an entire part of the story that's missing: Windows 10 Mobile. The phone side of Windows 10 failed rather quickly, and it's almost a joke to bring it up these days, but it's still a part of Windows 10's history.

In fact, one could say that Windows Phone and later Windows 10 Mobile failed because Microsoft never gave it priority. The firm always put the desktop first in a world where Apple and Google were willing to put mobile first. This is evident for Windows 10.

Windows 10 was first announced on September 30, 2014 with the first Technical Preview arriving the next day. We were told that something would arrive for phones sooner or later. The company announced Windows 10 Mobile on January 21, 2015, promising that Windows 10 would be a free upgrade for anyone running Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and Windows Phone 8.1.

Fast forward to July 29, 2015 when Windows 10 launched. Windows 10 Mobile didn't launch at that time though, and that was fine. We all knew that the fall update was the real Windows 10 rollout. That was when phones would get it, along with Xbox One consoles and more. Build 10240 came and went for Windows phones on the Windows Insider Program, and the RTM build for version 1511 was build 10586.

That's when things got a little bit wonky. On October 6, 2015, Microsoft held a 'big bang' product release, with all of its Windows 10 hero devices. Those included the Surface Pro 4, the original Surface Book, the Microsoft Lumia 950, 950 XL, and the low-end Lumia 550 (the Band 2 was also included, albeit not running Windows 10).

Those three Windows phones shipped with Windows 10 Mobile build 10586.0, but that was still widely considered to be a beta OS, despite running on shipping hardware. It wasn't until March 17, 2016 that existing Windows Phone 8.1 devices got the update.

To make matters worse, Microsoft didn't come through on its promise to offer the upgrade to all Windows Phone 8.1 devices. In fact, the majority of devices that were eligible during testing were left ineligible at the time of release.

Moreover, Microsoft didn't do anything to inform users that they could upgrade their phones, even if they were lucky enough to have an eligible device. If you had one, you had to download the Upgrade Advisor app, use that app to see if your phone is eligible, opt into the upgrade, and then install it. No one was ever automatically upgraded to Windows 10 Mobile.

While enthusiasts (including myself) continued to make excuses for Microsoft, assuming that this was all a part of some grand plan to refresh the Windows phone device landscape, this wasn't the case. In hindsight, it's clear that Windows 10 Mobile was dead before it even arrived.

There were a ton of new features in Windows 10 Mobile, such as Continuum, which allowed you to use your phone as a desktop PC. And of course, it includes the Universal Windows Platform, a visual overhaul, and more.

The screenshots that you see above were taken on an LG Lancet, which is my only device that's running version 1511. This was one of the phones that was eligible for testing but not eligible for the actual upgrade. Every device that actually got the upgrade also got the Windows 10 Mobile Anniversary Update, or version 1607.

Windows 10 Mobile version 1607 added a few key improvements, such as the new Skype Preview UWP app that also arrived in the PC version of the OS. Unfortunately, most of this stuff can't be demonstrated. The OS tries to pull these apps down from the Store, and some of them are completely up to date, while others don't work anymore. Skype is one of those that don't work anymore, as the UWP app is discontinued. It also added icons to the Settings menu, making it a bit more visually pleasing.

You'll notice in the 1511 screenshots that many apps don't work at all. I couldn't even launch Weather. That's because a lot of the apps in the Store have build 14393 (version 1607) set as the minimum version of Windows, so I'd get these apps that say I have to update it to use it, and then there's no update available.

At this point, there were new flagship Windows 10 Mobile devices, the Alcatel IDOL 4S and the HP Elite x3. They were the last flagships, and the only ones to ship with a Snapdragon 820 chipset. The IDOL 4S actually came with a VR headset with an array of VR games and apps that you could use.

HP's Elite x3 was billed as a 3-in-1 PC, making use of Microsoft's Continuum feature that let you plug the device into a monitor and use it as a desktop. A number of phones supported this, but HP had an ecosystem of accessories like the Desk Dock and the Lap Dock, for using the phone as a desktop or a laptop, respectively.

Version 1607 was the last update for every device that was upgraded from Windows Phone 8.1 except for the Microsoft Lumia 640 and 640 XL. Those devices got version 1703, and that was their last update.

And then came the Windows 10 Mobile Insider Previews for version 1709. It was clear that phones were no longer on the Redstone development branch, and they had moved to something called 'feature2'. Some speculated that Microsoft was just temporarily pulling phones from the Redstone branch to add it back later, or that phones were getting a different update because with the following update, they'd get the new responsive CSHELL.

But no; right up until the end, we were making excuses. Windows 10 Mobile was dead, and version 1709 reached the end of support on January 14, 2020.

During that time between the fall of 2017 and the winter of 2019, rumors still floated around about some kind of revival. This is when people started using the term "mobile PC" to describe Windows phones, saying that Microsoft could make something that fits in your pocket and make phone calls, but it's not a phone. Yes, it was ridiculous.

Microsoft was planning a dual-screen Windows 10 PC that was codenamed Andromeda, but that was eventually shelved. In fact, it became the Surface Duo, and instead of running Windows 10, it runs Android. Indeed, it seems that soon, you'll be able to get the Surface phone that we've always wanted, just not with the OS we've always wanted.

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