For a long time now, Windows Phone has had something of an image problem, one that can sometimes even extend to Windows as a whole.
The problem itself is actually quite simple to define: exactly who is the product for? An easy answer is everyone, but according to Microsoft’s marketing, at least here in the UK, that hasn’t quite been the case.
An Apple product, according to the fruity firm, is for those who have taste, or who are trendy. Android, as defined by our friendly neighborhood internet search emperor, is for everyone, and is backed up by statistics. In ads from Redmond, the picture is a little different.
Take the Lumia 930, a nice device (my personal daily driver), with a chunky aesthetic. It has something to appeal to almost everyone, and yet was advertised as being for the businessman. This is even reflected in the design of the phone, with hard, straight metal edges in the place of the old, curvy Lumia ‘smile’.
This ethos can also be seen in the design of the Lumia 630/5, and now in the Lumia 640 and 640 XL. All are defined almost by their lack of distinctiveness, aside from brightly colored, swappable plastic shells. They can appeal to the budget conscious consumer, or the new smartphone buyer rather easily. More importantly (for some), these are also very tempting options for another key market, one that is often side-lined due to its lack of sexiness: business buyers.
That is to say, the likes of the common IT manager, challenged with making a cost-effective bulk purchase of devices that will best serve the workforce. It is in this area that the appeal of Windows Phone is more clearly defined, at least at the moment.
For all of its proven popularity, Android fails to provide some important specifics for such buyers. Chief among these is the lack of proper security options, as well as a reputation for irregular software updates from manufacturers. Factor in a confusing muddle of choices, and making a clear decision becomes even more difficult.
Apple, despite having sexy hardware, is defined by a rigid approach and the simple matter of expense, along with a poor variety of devices. Against these two, the appeal of Windows Phone is clear, and the name recognition of Microsoft among the enterprise world only emphasizes this point further.
Indeed, Windows Phone has enjoyed a not insignificant pick-up amongst the business community, especially among those moving on from archaic Blackberry devices. So what does this mean for Windows Phone going forward?
From Mobile World Congress back in March, through Build in April, it has become clear that Microsoft envisages mobile as an essential part of its enterprise package. Features like Continuum are ample proof of this, cool for the consumer but potentially invaluable for many businesses.
So, what will this mean for the design of future Lumia phones? The answer is multi-faceted, with both good and bad sides.
The good side is rather simple, for what the business community values in its hardware are three things: power, versatility and endurance. Devices must be able to handle intensive tasks, multi-task with ease and be useful in a variety of situations. Moreover, they must have good staying power and be able to take a knock well.
Of course there is a downside, though how severe it is will depend on personal taste. Another thing that the business community values highly is cost effectiveness. Alone, this is nearly always a plus, but when combined with the above factors, the situation alters slightly. Instead of meaning ‘bang for your buck’, it means doing away with unnecessary frills, like design aesthetics. Making something beautiful is rarely the goal in the game of budget production.
At this point, and with Windows 10 on the way, it is highly unlikely that Satya Nadella intends for Windows Phone to die. Despite the change of name, and it being folded into a wider Windows department, too much has been invested to simply let the line fail. Moreover, so much of Windows 10 is designed around the inclusion of mobile that to omit it would be tantamount to madness at this late juncture.
It is far more likely that Nadella intends one thing, for Lumia to become the 'Thinkpad' line of the mobile world. During his tenure, he has emphasized two things: the cloud and enterprise. The Lumia line fits neatly into both. Mobile is far too important to the future of computing for Microsoft to completely bow out, or to adopt the operating system of its strongest competitor, especially when it has a fully-fledged and featured option of its own.
For the most part, these changes will most likely be rather pleasing to the ears of the power-user, as well as the general public. This is particularly the case with the two rumored flagships expected to be released later in the year, ‘Cityman’ and ‘Talkman’. Both promise to come with quad HD screens, large, removable, batteries, 64-bit processors, micro-SD card slots and so much more.
Those looking for a return to the brave and beautiful design of early era-Lumias are likely to be disappointed however. Such classics as the 920, the 800 and the 900, with their distinctive looks, will give way to something a little more generic, with only a little Lumia ‘flavor’. As the consumer will gain more options and power than have ever existed within Windows Phone, they will also lose a little of what has made the platform so distinctive.
This trend can already be seen through the constant updates to Windows Phone, and with the arrival of Windows 10. Ellipses are being replaced by hamburgers, address bars are hovering out of reach to the top of the screen. Bold and different is giving way to comfortable and conservative.
Windows Phone, from 7 through 8, was pleasantly different to the competition; as with Windows 8, the dream is now over. Microsoft is leaving its punk phase slowly behind, with live tiles the only living reminder of more daring times.
Through hardware and software, Windows Phone is being shaped into Windows 10 Mobile, more corporate, more appealing to enterprise. 2015 will tell if the change was worth the effort, and if Windows Phone will finally find its audience.
Is this a change you would welcome? Let us know in the comments below.
Editor's note: This is an opinion piece reflecting the views of the writer. If you disagree, provide your argument in the comments below in a civil manner.