Windows Phone was great, but here's why it deserved to die

Microsoft has all but given up on Windows Phone.

Today, Microsoft took a $US7.6 billion write-down on its acquisition of Nokia — the business that makes the Lumia, which accounts for something like 96% of all Windows Phone handsets manufactured today.

Over the next year, Microsoft will probably phase out the Lumia smartphone line, reducing the number of models on offer as it focuses on just a few flagship models intended to demonstrate the power of Windows on a phone to an increasingly disinterested world.

Long-time Microsoft watcher Paul Thurott believes that that Windows 10 Mobile will fail to win any kind of major market share as Apple and Google continue their Imperial March through the smartphone world.

It seems that this is an accepted reality at Redmond, too, as Microsoft is making some of the best Apple and Android apps out there (which is a bizarre sentence to type).

But Microsoft should take heart. Windows Phone may have been a failure, but it was a noble one.

Once upon a time, I used Windows Phone 8.1 for a week and described it as “the best platform you should never use.”

Here’s some of the stuff Windows Phone got really right:

  • Cortana — Microsoft’s digital assistant brought a lot more personality than her major smartphone counterparts — Apple’s Siri and Google Now — plus, I found her to be more helpful, in general. Fortunately, she’s coming to Windows 10, Apple iPhone, and Google Android.
  • Look and feel — Generally speaking, Windows Phone’s user interface was the slickest I’ve used to date. The iPhone and Android experiences haven’t changed dramatically over the past decade or so they have been in existence, but Microsoft really came up with something new and cool that presented a lot of information, quickly.
  • Bells and whistles — Windows Phone had lots of little things that made me really appreciate the thought that went into it, like Wi-Fi Sense, a tool that used location to tell when you were at home or the office and automatically toggle Wi-Fi on and off. Plus, it had a forward-looking social media view that let you see any one person’s entire social media presence at a glance.
Windows phone 8Microsoft exec Joe Belfiore at the introduction event for Windows Phone 8.

But there was one big problem that made it absolutely impossible to recommend to anybody: There just weren’t enough apps, thanks to a particularly vicious cycle.

By the time Windows Phone came out in late 2010, Android and iOS were already taking over the smartphone market. Windows Phone was a break from Microsoft’s previous platform, Windows Mobile, which meant apps wouldn’t carry forward.

So developers wouldn’t bother making apps for Windows Phone, because very few people owned a Windows Phone. Even Google declined to make an official Windows Phone version of YouTube or Gmail. When developers did bother with the platform, they often made half-baked apps that didn’t work perfectly or were never updated.

That meant nobody wanted to buy a Windows Phone because too many apps were missing or bad. And so on, and so forth, forever, into the darkness of the abyss.

Windows 10 is making a tremendous push for developers, with Microsoft promising 1 to 3 billion devices running the new operating system within three years — an attractive target market for anybody making software.

But the new Microsoft smartphone strategy, post-Nokia writeoff, is also extremely pragmatic. If users aren’t going to Windows Phone, then Microsoft will have to bring the best parts of Windows Phone to users on whatever platform they’re using.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s note to employees on the Nokia writeoff indicates that the company is moving towards “mobility of experiences,” as in it doesn’t matter what device they’re using, so long as the software is Microsoft.

Hence, amazing iPhone apps like Microsoft Outlook for iOS, alongside free versions of Microsoft Office for iOS and Android. It’s a future where an iPhone can live in perfect harmony with a Windows PC.

It’s just also an approach that makes the Windows Phone totally redundant.

Windows Phone was, and remains, a future-looking platform, built to take advantage of a tremendous Microsoft ecosystem that never quite materialised. It’s just a little funny that with Windows 10, that ecosystem might finally become a reality — but probably not on any smartphone with the Microsoft name on it.

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