Microsoft’s exit from phones leaves everyone worse off.
I recently met up with an old schoolfriend whom I hadn’t seen for many years. As is traditional on such occasions, we revisited some old memories, and recalled childhood dreams that we had never fulfilled. But the moment that made me feel the most wistful, the most conscious of what might have been, was when he casually pulled out a Windows Phone from his pocket.
Officially, the Windows Phone platform is still a going concern. True, you probably won’t find a wall of handsets in your local Carphone Warehouse, but Microsoft is pressing on with its latest iteration, Windows 10 Mobile, and new Insider builds trickle out fairly regularly.
Functionally, though, Windows on smartphones is an ex-parrot. Market share figures vary between analysts, but all agree that less than 0.5% of new smartphones are sold running a Microsoft OS. And the number’s certainly not going up.
What’s more, Microsoft has evidently made its peace with this. Since buying Nokia’s smartphone business in 2013, it’s ditched thousands of staff, discontinued the Lumia line and invested in Android and iOS instead. Rumours of a new Surface Phone have floated around for years, but nothing has appeared. I’ve no idea why Windows 10 Mobile still exists: eMarketer analyst Bill Fisher predicts that when it’s finally killed off, “it will be barely noticed”.
To all of which you might legitimately ask, so what? Windows Phone was never a real contender in the first place, failing to capture more than 10% of global sales even in its best ever quarter (Q3 2013, if you’re wondering). Good riddance to a failed product.
Yet this isn’t just about a product. In Microsoft’s grand, failed vision, Windows Phone was to be something far more organic – a closer companion to your desktop than anything previously seen. The convergence between its tiled interface and the Windows 8 Start screen was an obvious statement, but the relationship went far deeper than that. In its evolved form as Windows 10 Mobile, Windows Phone was a keystone of the original Windows 10 proposition. It promised the unique ability to have the exact same applications in your pocket as you used on your desktop – something neither Apple nor Google could offer. It would even be possible to hook up your phone to a keyboard and monitor and use it as a minimal Windows workstation in its own right – a big part of what got me excited about Windows 10 in the first place. Today, it looks depressingly unlikely that that promise will ever be meaningfully fulfilled.
Some might say the idea was doomed from the outset. Cross-device apps would come from the Windows Store, and Microsoft has thus far found it nigh-on impossible to get punters through its doors.
But the Store itself isn’t a bad idea, it’s just been badly implemented. More to the point, Microsoft has failed to give us a good reason to go there. In an alternate reality, where Microsoft had made a success of Windows 10 Mobile, it would be booming – if only by dint of being the default source for smartphone apps. That in turn would make it a more credible source for desktop software, and a perfect launchpad for cross-platform apps.
The other objection is one of simple usability: how does an app work on both a small touchscreen and a large desktop monitor? I admit I was a bit doubtful here myself. The first batch of “Metro” apps in Windows 8 clearly illustrated the clash of assumptions between finger-friendly interface elements and more conventional input methods. Those of us trialling Windows 8 on regular laptops spent a lot of time laboriously dragging the mouse pointer from one edge of the screen to the other to perform basic functions.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do better, though. Gradually, the interface elements in the latest Windows 10 builds are becoming smarter and smarter. Until the esteemed Mr Barry Collins reminded me of it on a recent podcast, I’d managed to forget entirely that the new Settings interface was a “touch-first” design; I’d come to think of it as a pretty decent modern replacement for the labyrinthine Control Panel interface.
All of this is by the by, because while a given bit of code might run on both desktop and smartphone hardware, there’s no need to use the same front-end on both. We already expect websites to adapt themselves according to whether you’re using a desktop or mobile browser; it’s hardly unreasonable to ask an actual application to do the same. True, you might have to learn two different ways of performing a given task, but that’s no worse than the present. Plus, today we have to contend with smartphone apps that are infuriatingly decoupled from their desktop or web counterparts, and often don’t even offer the same core functions. It’s better for the user to have one codebase everywhere, and I dare say it’s also easier for the developer to maintain and update.
So when I think of what might have been, yes, I’m sad about Windows Phone. Let’s be honest, the journey from Windows 7 to 10 was potholed by brain-dead decisions, but Universal apps were a bold, distinctive idea that actually had me poised to make the leap to Windows Phone. Without them, Windows 10 is a mere fraction of what we were originally promised.
Still, what can you do? School reunions do tend to remind one that things don’t always turn out the way you’d hoped, and life isn’t always fair. They’re also a good reminder to enjoy and appreciate what you have.
The journey from Windows 7 to 10 was potholed by brain-dead decisions, but Universal apps were a bold, distinctive idea