Mi­crosoft’s exit from phones leaves ev­ery­one worse off.

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 - Darien Gra­ham-Smith is PC Pro’s associate ed­i­tor. He’s very much in favour of “write once”, but prefers not to run any­where. @dariengs darien@pcpro.co.uk

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

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