POSTMORTEM: Windows Phone

Too soon?

Postmortem is a series where I conduct an autopsy and find a cause of death for some of the tech world’s failed products.

DESCRIPTION:

Type: Mobile device operating system

Company: Microsoft

Released: 21 October 2010 (PAL Region), 8 November 2010 (NA)

Time of Death: 8 October 2017 (renamed Windows 10 Mobile)

Status: Development discontinued.

Background: Windows Phone, later known as Windows 10 Mobile, is a family of operating systems intended to be used on smartphones. Released by Microsoft in 2010, it is the successor to the moderately successful Windows Mobile line. The Windows Mobile line was used on PocketPCs (the ‘palmtop’ or PDA form factor devices) and early smartphones, and was generally considered to be superior to Palm devices (their main competitor at the time). By 2007 this line was extremely popular in the US but quickly lost market share to iOS and Android (declining from about 2007 onwards). Windows Phone was to be the successor software and recapture the market.

Software Description: The first release (WP 7) relied on a kernel that emerged from the old Windows Mobile line, but from WP 8 onward the kernel was based on Windows NT. Developed with a focus on Microsoft services, it featured (for the time) extensive OneDrive (previously SkyDrive), Office, and Outlook integration. The installed browser was Internet Explorer. The UI is unique and based on the Metro design language introduced to desktops with Windows 8. Later iterations had features like the Cortana digital assistant, Microsoft’s Edge browser, and attempts to unify some elements of Windows 10’s desktop experience with the mobile device (Continuum). Microsoft were also working on the ability to easily port iOS/Android apps to the platform. Had its own app store.

Hardware Description: Predominately deployed on Nokia devices – the Lumia line. Nokia’s line of WP handsets ran a range of price points, although most of them are generally considered to be of a high quality, especially their flagship line. The Lumia 920 is a standout model with its eye-catching colours and (for the time) excellent optically stabilised camera. Other handsets (of less prominence) were developed by many other handset manufacturers, most notably HTC, LG, Samsung, ZTE, and Huawei.

AUTOPSY:

Handsets: For the most part, if one wanted a Windows Mobile device, one’s only real choice was a Nokia handset. The Lumia line had a range of objectively excellent handsets, especially with their flagship devices, usually with excellent cameras included. There were also many low-end handsets available that tended to be slightly better than the comparatively cheap and nasty Android devices. High end Lumia devices tended to be comparable in cost to high end Android units (and slightly cheaper than Apple handsets). The Lumia line is somewhat iconic and often featured bright colours and tough designs, and were some of the first mainstream handsets to include features like Qi wireless charging. By and large the handsets were good. Microsoft started to dictate expectations of Windows Phone hardware (for example: dedicated camera buttons) towards the end of the Nokia partnership.

Operating System: Windows Phone is actually a fairly good operating system that was fast, light-weight, and fairly easy to navigate. It had excellent integration with Microsoft services, especially around the time of the Lumia 920 release (probably one of the most popular Windows Phones), and was actually a fair selling point during a period when Microsoft’s app support for iOS and Android was limited (or practically non-existent). The home screen featured a series of ’tiles’ practically identical to those implemented from Windows 8 onward – tiles could be resized and could be ‘live’ meaning they displayed updated information from the app they represented. Windows Phone also featured a “People Hub” app which attempted to aggregate social media feeds and contacts into a single place (most notably Twitter and Facebook) – which was practically essential because software support was very limited otherwise. Microsoft Office support was excellent for the time of initial release, and was one of the few ways to get any sort of decent mobile Office support. All in all, the actual OS is fairly good – it had some good UI ideas that others have attempted to replicate since that time. It was clean, it was fast, and it worked.

Application Support: The biggest issue is that developers never took much of an interest in the platform. In the early days of the new iOS/Android era, iOS was the lead platform and Android was stuck playing second fiddle. That situation has largely changed, however it never changed for WP. Major outfits like Facebook, Twitter, and Google never properly supported the platform (in fact, Google actively refused support, as they have with Windows Apps) – what app support existed was token in nature. Popular apps like YouTube or Google Maps, and many popular industry apps never made it to the platform. What development did occur tended to be from people trying to shoehorn support for these services into their own apps; many of which were of poor quality. Outside of official Microsoft apps, there was very little of value – and the primary reason why apps like People Hub, or Nokia Drive were bundled with the handsets was because there were no reliable third party developers. For the most part, whatever you got out of the box was what you were going to be stuck with, with few exceptions.

Niche Market: Smartphones didn’t become popular with the mainstream consumer until the iPhone – until that point, they were mostly seen in the hands of businessmen in corporate environments, where Windows Mobile devices made sense. By the time Windows Phone launched, iOS had effectively captured the market, with Android the clear challenger. Given the dominance of Google services and Apple hardware, WP was always going to be at a massive disadvantage. The lack of interest from developers, combined with Google actively dismissing the platform, meant that it never had a chance to capture any appreciable market share. Integration with Microsoft services just wasn’t that important.

Microsoft’s Actions: Microsoft clearly knew that the platform was doomed to fail, and have since focused on making their services and software available on as many platforms as possible. The apps released for iOS and Android are objectively better than their WP counterparts – Office on iOS and Android is excellent, as is Outlook and OneDrive. With the release of these high quality apps, it seems like there’s been an admission on Microsoft’s part that WP has failed.

CAUSE OF DEATH:

1. Lack of Software Support. By far and away the single biggest factor is that developers never supported the platform in any appreciable way. It is a paradox; developers will support platforms if there are enough users, and users will buy into a platform if there’s enough application support. The latter never occurred, so the former didn’t either. What applications were released tended to be objectively worse than their iOS/Android counterparts, or were pointless shovelware titles that probably wouldn’t have been tolerated on the other platforms anyway. There were also developers attempting to exploit the weaknesses of the platform for a profit, offering paid apps to attempt to overcome the awful official developer support. With this attitude and terrible 3rd party dev support, Windows Phone was always going to die.

2. No Compelling Reason to Switch. The second contributing factor is that the Windows Phone units offered no reason to use them over iOS or Android handsets. If there was a significantly compelling feature, like a killer app or significantly better hardware, it might have been enough to drive enough users to the platform to encourage developers to support it. But nothing Windows Phone offered made a convincing argument to switch; iOS and Android did almost all of the same things, except they usually did them better, and offered a significantly wider software library. The crown jewel of the WP platform was Microsoft service integration – and that wasn’t compelling enough back then, and is no longer relevant now.

CORONER’S PERSONAL NOTES:

The Windows Phone line of devices is a cautionary tale of how even apparently good platforms can be killed off by lack of third party support. It isn’t enough to just have a good platform – it has to be compelling enough to encourage enough people to switch. Windows Phone never achieved that – it was a good platform, but it lacked any sort of special hook to encourage people to use it. There was no reason to pick it up when any iOS or Android handset could do the same job, and do it better. For the average consumer, Microsoft Office integration was irrelevant; they don’t need their Office docs in their pocket. With that lack of user interest, developers had no real interest in supporting the platform – and thus users never wanted to support it either. Using the platform was an endless series of compromises, and if you bought a flagship unit, you were effectively buying into a platform that did less than the similarly priced competition.

Lots of people liked the platform and would argue that “you can just use web pages instead of relying on apps” but this becomes a clunky experience that’s still worse than what you’d get on iOS or Android. In the end, Windows Phone died because it’s simply not worth using over the competition – and Microsoft clearly knew this and adjusted their strategy accordingly.

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