A recent post on Twitter by Brad Sams asks the question
What would you do to revive Windows Phone?
— Brad Sams (@bdsams) January 29, 2016
That tweet has been getting a few responses and it’s been a trendy topic of late. Between newly blond Joe Belfoire tweeting from an iPhone (for which he has a really good reason for doing so, but still freaked some people out) and the latest report on earnings showing Lumia sales dropping; people are commenting more than usual on the fate of the platform.
Many of the responses to Sams’s tweet were calls for Microsoft to spend more money promoting Windows Phone, get more iOS apps for the platform, release a Surface Phone, run Android apps, fix the Store etc. I saw posts about just keeping the platform alive like Apple did with OS X and wait for the market to change.
Microsoft has pretty much done what it can to boost market share for Windows Phone. They wrote native versions of popular iOS and Android apps (like Facebook and Twitter). They assisted in getting other apps (like Flipboard) ported. They bought technology (Project Islandwood, the Windows Bridge for iOS) to allow Objective-C iOS apps to be recompiled with little to no changes (like Candy Crush). But in the end, no one bought a Lumia over an iPhone because they could still run Candy Crush.
The Windows Phone to Mac comparision doesn’t really have any legs to stand on. Apple computer sales were always a fraction of Windows, but they usually had 10-12% of the market. And Apple made their machines cool. And Microsoft made sure that their apps (Office) ran (more or less) on the Mac.
Anything that resets the playing field is going to reset that field for all of the players. Windows wont be able to step in to replace iOS and/or Android because whatever makes them irrelevant will make Windows 10 for Mobile irrelevant too.
And then you had Project Astoria. The Windows Bridge for Android. Last year, Microsoft demoed the technology that would let you run Android apps on Windows 10 for Mobile. Windows 10 for Mobile had (past tense) had a subsystem that allowed Android apps to run. You could run them basically unmodified, but Microsoft made it was to add a few lines of code and link to a library and it would give an Android app access to Windows features like live tiles.
Last fall, Microsoft pulled the plug on Astoria. Officially it’s “on hold“, but I think they blew that bridge to smithereens. The problem Islandwood and Astoria is that they don’t actually address the problem. App developers were not committing resources to Windows Phone development. Writing the code was just one piece of the problem. You still had to have people test the apps and support the apps.
Some people have talked about a rumored Surface Phone. It’s a unicorn, wrapped in a VaporMG case. Microsoft could release a Surface phone tomorrow running on top of a Snapdragon 820 and it really wouldn’t change anything.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has been porting everything from Office, to Cortana, to the Word Flow keyboard to iOS and Android. That’s been one of the shifts that has occurred under Satya Nadella’s watch. The mobile OS is less critical, it’s the apps and the services used by those services that Microsoft is now going after.
I have a Lumia Icon phone running Windows Phone 8.1. It has been my favorite phone of all time. I don’t expect to see any new flagship phones for Windows 10 for Mobile coming to Verizon. Microsoft has already shown that it’s not terribly concerned about not being on 50% of the US market. Nadella made it clear last July that growing their phone business was no longer a top priority. My next phone is most likely going to be an Android phone.
So what happens next for Microsoft on mobile? Windows 10 for Mobile will eventually be released for the Windows 8.1 phones that can run it. Windows Phone global market share will level off at some number between really bad and awful. It’s a minor player, some markets more minor than others. To pretend anything else is just wishful thinking.
Microsoft will continue to bring apps and services to iOS and Android. They could write an Android launcher that brings live tiles to Android. That’s pretty feasible and they could provide an API to make it easy for other apps to add live tile functionality. You could start seeing the bits and pieces of what made Windows Phone special on Android. And to a lesser extent on iPhone. It’s hard to upgrade a walled garden, and the walls around iOS are pretty high. But the Microsoft apps will be there. And those apps ultimately sell Microsoft services like Office 365 and the Azure platform.