The head of Microsoft’s Windows division, Joe Belfiore, finally made it official. Windows Phone is officially dead to the company, and will only receive security updates and bug fixes from now on. The focus has been taken off new features or new hardware to support the WP platform.
We’ve known that this has been in the works for a long time now. The problem is not just Microsoft’s lack of interest in pursuing the development of this OS version: it’s app developers and the WP community in general. There are far too few users for app companies to want to create new software for devices running Windows Phone because it’s simply not worth the effort.
The focus is now on Windows 10, plain and simple. Not Windows 10 Mobile or Windows 10 S, but a full version of Windows 10 that can run on any sized device irrespective of its form factor.
While this is a major disappointment for Windows Phone users, it shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. Although the WP user interface was unique in its own way, there was little interest in the platform to begin with. And, as it kept losing market share to iOS and Android, interest dropped even further. At least now it’s official.
Long Live Surface Phone
But don’t be fooled into thinking that Microsoft’s plans in the mobile world are dead along with this acknowledgement. They’re attacking the mobile world in multiple ways, through software and hardware.
On the software side, they’re pushing their browser, Microsoft Edge, and other products like Office, Outlook, Swiftkey, Skype, etc. to both iOS and Android platforms in a big way. Cortana is being promoted heavily as well on mobile platforms. And Office 365, the company’s Software as a Service (SaaS) product family, is accessible across multiple platforms since it’s a cloud-based suite of applications.
On the hardware front there’s the partnership with Qualcomm to develop Windows 10 mobile devices through OEMs like Lenovo, HP and ASUS. There is also a device that’s being tested internally with a new version of Windows 10 Mobile. All of these initiatives point to the Surface Phone idea still being alive and well at Microsoft.
But let’s not ignore the fact that we’ve seen little external evidence of anything happening on the mobile front. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his team have been talking about an “ultimate mobile device” that outstrips the capabilities of any smartphone available today. However, all we’ve heard until now are rumors and announcements. Where’s the actual hardware, and will it be able to run the full version of Windows 10?
For now, both Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile have been pushed to the sidelines. The user base and device base are far too small for Microsoft to keep supporting them, and app developers are no longer interested, as I mentioned.
But that also means something else. There’s a big gap in Microsoft’s mobile strategy as it transitions from the old to the new.
The longer Microsoft delays its hardware push into the world of mobile phones, the harder it will be to crack the absolute dominance that Android and iOS currently enjoy. According to research firm IDC, 99.7 percent of smartphones run on one or the other. That means an extremely thin sliver of market share of 0.3% that has to be shared by everyone else, including Microsoft’s Windows 10 Mobile and Windows Phone.
With those kinds of numbers staring you in the face, it’s more than a little daunting to mount another attack on the smartphone market, especially when the first one failed so miserably, and Nokia itself has now embraced Android via the company’s licensing deal with HMD Global.
Microsoft is expected to make its first moves later this year, initially releasing OEM devices that will be able to run win32 desktop apps using emulation layers. It could then release a device of its own, presumably the one that’s currently being tested at the company’s HQ, and that may happen in 2018. From the pulse we’re getting, it could be as late as the second half of next year.
Will it be too late by then? The truth is, it’s already too late, and it’s been too late for quite some time now. The only way Microsoft can make any sort of dent in the smartphone market is by doing what Apple did in 2007: introduce a product like nothing else before it.
And that’s the plan for Surface Phone, or at least the concept that’s driving the elusive product called Surface Phone. As I mentioned, the first evidence of that concept becoming reality will come later this year. But it needs time to evolve because the first versions aren’t going to be fully capable if they release them too early.
On the plus side, Windows 10 is the dominant platform for desktops, so Microsoft will definitely have an edge if it releases a smartphone-like device that does everything that a desktop can. On the other, it has to be marketed very carefully, and positioned the right way. If it’s promoted as a “better” smartphone, not many people are going to want to buy it. But if it’s touted as a productivity device for the enterprise segment, it could gain some initial traction that will help it grow in the long run. I’ve detailed that in an earlier article called Microsoft’s Surface Phone Efforts Could Be Destroyed By Bad Marketing.
If Microsoft is able to pull this off, it will be the greatest coup in smartphone history since the launch of the original iPhone, which was largely responsible for the death of non-touch devices in developed markets.
As of now, we’ll have to live with the fact that both Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile are officially dead, but being kept alive artificially, simply because there are still users that have devices running these OS versions. And we still have no indication that a Surface Phone will be released any time soon.