As Microsoft made the demise of Windows Phone official last week, it’s time to take stock of what went wrong, and all the things Microsoft will and must now do to ensure that none of those things are repeated with its much-touted (and much-doubted) Surface Phone release.
Here’s a quick look at the timeline of Microsoft’s many ventures into mobile computing:
Microsoft was actually an early mover in the mobile computing space, with its Windows Mobile OS that ran on third-party hardware like Motorola, Samsung and Palm (remember those?)
This goes back as far as the early 2000s, when iPhone wasn’t even a concept. In fact, Windows Mobile itself was based on the Windows CE 4.x kernel, whose predecessors date back to the 1990s.
In 2005, Windows Mobile 5.0 was released, first running on the Dell Axim x51. But the problem was, Windows Mobile devices had already peaked the year before, accounting for 23 percent of smartphone market share.
At the time, it was predicted that Windows OS would become the dominant mobile OS by 2010, overtaking Nokia’s Symbian.
While all this was happening, Microsoft stayed away from licensing its Windows Mobile to Nokia, licensing it instead to the other four of the Top 5 mobile device makers.
And then came iPhone, and within two years – by 2009 – it was behind iPhone as the third largest mobile operating system after BlackberryOS and iOS.
The following year, market share for Windows Mobile dropped to 5 percent, putting it behind Android once and for all.
That same year, 2010, Windows Phone was officially born, after six long years of development, being canceled and then the dev team being reorganized to finally release Windows Phone to North America in November 2010.
By then, iOS and Android were already far ahead, and the battle was lost.
Nevertheless, Windows Phone pushed ahead with Nokia, finally culminating in a last-ditch effort to capture market share with the acquisition of Nokia in 2013.
The final version of Windows Phone was released in 2015 as Windows Phone 8.1 (Update 2.)
The same year, Windows Phone’s successor, Windows 10 Mobile, was born.
One of the most short-lived major mobile OSes from Microsoft, Windows 10 Mobile mainstream support ends in October 2018.
How Does All of That Tie-in with Surface Phone?
So, if rumors are accurate about Surface Phone and Microsoft’s new version of Windows 10 Mobile, this won’t be the company’s second foray into smartphones. It will be the fifth or sixth attempt at cracking the smartphone market.
Microsoft has tremendous knowledge around how to fail in the smartphone world. Every mistake they’ve made so far strengthens their resolve to re-enter the space in a big way. Perhaps that’s why Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is not going to release just another smartphone. That’s out of the question after twenty-five years of grappling with the mobile market.
Surface Phone has an Extremely High Qualification Bar
The new smartphone from Microsoft – whatever it’s going to be called and whenever it’s going to be released – is based on their original concept of a Pocket PC that goes back twenty-five years when work first started on Windows CE, the predecessor to Windows Mobile.
The original objective was a handheld version of a desktop PC, essentially, and that’s what Surface Phone is all about. It is not a smartphone in the traditional sense of a mobile device with mobile-only applications downloaded from an app store; it is a cellular device, no doubt, but with all the processing capabilities of a full-fledged desktop PC.
And that’s why it’s taking so long because Microsoft wants to get it right this time. This is probably their last chance at this market. Android already exists on more than 8 out of 10 devices, and iOS pretty much has the other two in the bag.
If Microsoft wants to guarantee itself any measure of success, it must not only outperform iPhones, Galaxys and Pixels, but also top Play Store and App Store in terms of what types of applications it can run – not necessarily in terms of app count.
In effect, Microsoft has to create a device that can work as a smartphone, extend to a desktop and pretty much do everything a PC can do, but on a much smaller physical scale.
And that’s what the company is doing. By leveraging the UWP platform, the thousands of desktop applications developed for Windows over the decades, its strong presence in the enterprise and business user segment, the latest in cellular technology represented by its partnership with Qualcomm, its acquired know-how in hardware manufacturing and so on, Microsoft is crafting the mobile device of the future.
And that’s what we’ve come to know as Surface Phone.
When you look at it from the ‘bigger picture’ perspective, Surface Phone has actually been 25 years in the making. There’s no room for Microsoft to make mistakes this time around. It must hit the market hard and stun the likes of Apple, Samsung and Google.
And Surface Phone must offer an unparalleled user experience – long battery life, seamless app integration, smooth Continuum feature, support for any display size, always-on cellular connectivity, a sizable body of mobile apps aside from x86 win32 app emulation, premium build, regular updates, enterprise-level security and much more.
Nothing less will do for Surface Phone.