Windows Phone was a glorious failure

By on Oct 12, 2017 in Mobile Design | 0 comments

This past weekend, Microsoft made official what was already known for years: the Windows Phone mobile operating system is dead. There’ll be no further development, no miraculous Windows 10 Mobile revivals, and no further attempts to compete with the overwhelming duopoly of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The new Microsoft, led by Satya Nadella, prefers collaboration over competition — or at least that’s the choice the company tells itself it has made in abandoning its thwarted mobile OS venture.

But the overall failure of Windows Phone masks a series of smaller successes and advances, which Microsoft and its hardware partners have never received enough credit for. At its outset in 2010, Windows Phone was the boldest and most original reimagining of what a smartphone can be after Apple’s iPhone introduction three years prior. Unlike Android, Windows Phone was not a re-creation of the iOS icon grid; also unlike Android, Windows Phone ran fast and fluid on very basic hardware.

Given how few opportunities we’re likely to have to talk about Windows Phone in the future, I thought I’d take a look back at some of my highlights from covering Microsoft’s ill-fated mobile operating system over the years.

October 2010: A radically different phone OS

It was almost exactly seven years ago, on October 11th, 2010, that noted tech geek Stephen Fry stood in front of a captive audience in London and declared himself thrilled to be endorsing the new Windows Phone OS. A longtime iPhone enthusiast, Fry was just giddy with the little “moments of delight” that the refreshingly new Windows Phone provided him. He had good reason to be enthusiastic: the original Windows Phone of those days was radically different and in many ways ahead of its time.

The chromeless, distilled interface of WP7 was a million miles away from the skeuomorphism dominating Apple’s phones and Samsung’s copycat efforts. Where an iPhone served you static icons, a Windows Phone offered tiles with live information on them: a calendar surfacing your next appointments, a messaging app presenting snippets of texts, a phone app with your last missed call, and so on. When you look at subsequent “hub” pages on Android — things like HTC’s BlinkFeed or the Google Now cards with contextually relevant information and news — know that at least some of their inspiration came from what Microsoft did with Windows Phone. Or, at least, what Microsoft envisioned. I think the biggest misstep from Microsoft was in its failure to follow through on its bold vision and novel design sensibility; Windows Phone was compromised and watered down in significant ways after initial feedback deemed it too unfamiliar and alien to mobile users.

It’s easy to now forget just how fast and responsive Windows Phone felt relative to anything Android could come up with. Microsoft’s on-screen keyboard was also vastly superior. And if you wanted to talk about the most elegant system for providing notifications or useful information on the lock screen, you had to talk about Microsoft’s solution. In some of the most important and pervasive ways, Windows Phone was the iPhone’s equal — primarily because Microsoft adopted an Apple-like approach of tightly controlling the user experience across all devices and manufacturers. It was closed-shop, walled-garden software production, and it paid off with a great degree of polish and refinement.


November 2011: Industrial design revolution

The contributions of the Windows Phone ecosystem to the wider field of smartphone design have never been properly recognized. The platform launched with some gorgeous and truly unique phones like the Samsung Omnia 7 with a 4-inch OLED display, Dell Venue Pro with a slide-out keyboard, and HTC 7 Surround with a big integrated speaker and kickstand. But it was the following year, when HTC introduced the Windows Phone 8X and 8S and Nokia launched the Lumia 800, that we really saw Windows Phone push out in front in the industrial design stakes.

I reviewed those phones, and they were among the most handsome and innovative designs of their time. Nokia was plagiarizing itself by exploiting the lovely pillow-shaped Nokia N9 design, but that didn’t matter: the fact was that for that one moment in late 2011, Windows Phone had some of the finest hardware around. (The contemporary iPhone, the 4S, was nice, but it was a reiteration of a year-old design and it had a smaller screen.)

Microsoft was able to launch Windows Phone 7 with a battery of differentiated designs from every aspiring global phone maker, and a year later it followed up with the best designs from Nokia and HTC. Nokia staked its entire future on Windows Phone, and HTC invested heavily in making the Windows Phone 8X and 8S — which Microsoft designated “Signature Windows Phone” devices — as good and as pretty as they were. This was a pivotal moment for the mobile OS as a whole, because the eventual failure of these phones to dent the iPhone and Android’s market dominance is what led to a spiraling loss of faith among Microsoft’s hardware partners and the eventual dissolution of Nokia as a phone maker.


July 2013: Phone cameras take a step forward

Windows Phone disturbed our preconceptions about good user interfaces when it launched. The OS then gave us some of the nicest phone hardware we’d seen. And before its star started to fade, it managed to move the needle on camera technology, too, courtesy of the Lumia 1020 and its iconic round camera bump. The Lumia 1020 was a more mainstream version of the hardcore Nokia 808 PureView running Symbian. Both phones had 41-megapixel camera sensors, and both marked significant advances in mobile imaging. The 808 is still such a good camera that I can dig it out of a drawer and use it as a reliable point-and-shoot that would be shamed by no modern smartphone. The subsequent Lumia 1020 splits the difference by not being quite as good at the imaging stuff, but having a vastly superior and more modern operating system.

Windows Phone had a variety of issues undermining its chances of popular success, but the essential hardware aspects of good design, great imaging, and reliable battery life were rarely in question.

August 2013: The YouTube blockade

If you’re wondering why none of Microsoft’s many strenuous Windows Phone efforts ultimately paid off, the key answer lies in the platform’s chronic failure to attract third-party app developers. Every time Nokia launched a new Windows Phone, it had to dodge and duck the question of when there’ll be an Instagram app for the OS. Even as Microsoft was beating Google at providing a smoother and slicker first-party app experience, Google was winning handily in having the more essential apps and the more enthusiastic third-party ecosystem. In an alternate universe, where Microsoft’s Bing was superior to Google search, and where Hotmail had retained its popularity and Internet Explorer had remained the dominant web browser, there’s a chance we could all be talking about Android’s demise right now.

Perhaps the biggest missing app for Microsoft was YouTube, and that was no accident. There’s a long history of hostilities between Google and Microsoft over YouTube’s presence on Windows Phone, but ultimately I think Google just didn’t want to give WP the chance to become a legitimate Android rival. Most internet use is now mobile, and YouTube occupies a huge chunk of our time while we’re on our phones, so any platform that’s missing a proper YouTube app is at a massive disadvantage. Call it simplistic, but I suspect similar reasons lie behind Google’s decision to yank YouTube off the Amazon Echo Show: it’s another example of a direct competitor to a Google product (Google Home, in that case) being hamstrung by the absence of a YouTube app.


Microsoft Lumia stock

April 2014: Taking over Nokia

By 2014, Windows Phone had pretty much exhausted its supply of good news and was morphing into a learning exercise for both Microsoft and the wider mobile industry. Having alienated HTC and Samsung early on by seeming to favor Nokia, Microsoft bit the bullet and just acquired the storied Finnish phone manufacturer. What followed were a series of rebranding and repositioning efforts and the first Microsoft logos embossed on modern-era smartphones. But Microsoft couldn’t alter the trajectory that had been set by its insurmountable app deficit and it just kept trying to appeal on the basis of the traditional Nokia strengths of imaging and design. What ended up happening was that Android vendors like Samsung finally woke up to the importance of those factors, and eventually they just outdid the former Nokia at its own game.

One of the crucial issues that Microsoft had before its Nokia takeover was a conflict over what should be prioritized. Microsoft had the iPhone in its sights, whereas Nokia was keen to drag the power- and resource-efficient Windows Phone down to lower price points. Nokia was trying to capitalize on its head start of having brand equity in the rapidly developing markets of India and the rest of the Asian subcontinent, while Microsoft was thinking of ways to position itself against its oldest rival. The frustration on both sides bubbled over into public disclosures about the pace of progress, which is predictable considering the two companies were advancing toward different goals.

The Microsoft lesson for companies like Google, which just acquired HTC’s smartphone team, is multidimensional. Firstly, adopting the Apple-like approach of tight control over the user experience really did pay off in making Windows Phone feel consistently smooth and cohesive. But secondly, if a software vendor is going to piss off its hardware partners, it might as well go all the way instead of tip-toeing around the matter. Microsoft wanted to have Nokia as its de facto in-house Windows Phone design operation, but it still wanted Samsung and HTC pouring money into devising their own devices. It was greedy, and it didn’t pan out. Microsoft could have saved itself many headaches by buying Nokia much earlier and setting a single, unified strategy for where Windows Phone was going to go. Defeating both iOS at the high end and Android at the low end was always an unreasonably ambitious objective.

August 2015: The 2.5 percent

So what’s happened in the three years since Microsoft bought Nokia? Well, in 2015 the smartphone market was confirmed to be a total iPhone / Android duopoly, with Gartner reporting 96.8 percent of all phones sold having one or the other OS. Microsoft claimed 2.5 percent of the market then, and it’s only been going down since. Tom Warren, The Verge’s most resolute Windows Phone stalwart, raised the white flag at the end of 2014. The fact that Windows Phone endured as long as it has is mostly a matter of Microsoft’s deep resources to support its zombie corpse.

But even as we look back on this entire venture as an unsuccessful attempt to offer an alternative to Apple and Google, we shouldn’t lose sight of the positive legacy it has left behind. The mobile industry would have been much poorer without the considerable resources Microsoft and its partners poured into building a third viable ecosystem. There are many lessons for others to benefit from and many hardware innovations to be inspired by. Windows Phone should be remembered as one of the best failures the tech industry has produced.

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