It was such a beautiful dream. The openness of Google, matched with the control of Apple. Quality and quantity, optimised apps that anyone would be free to make. All married together with a bold sense of style and the massive branding power of Microsoft, there was no way that Windows Phone 7 could lose.
And yet here we are: 2015. Five years after the dream once started, yet all that is left to do is pinpoint when it became a nightmare; how did it all go so wrong? As Windows Phone is laid to rest once again, soon to be born anew as Windows 10 Mobile, it is certainly a pertinent question.
In 2010, the mobile world and its trends were not quite so set in stone as they now are. Apple, having started the smartphone revolution (at least according to some), was focused on the success of its newest device form factor, the iPad, regarded by many as an over-inflated phone.
Android, now arguably the undisputed lord and master of the mobile space, was a mere chit, weak legged and lacking direction. Google was vacillating, making half-hearted attempts to kick-start its tablet game, while the likes of Samsung had yet to achieve anything like the success they would go on to enjoy.
Nokia too was otherwise occupied, slowly grinding itself into the ground with poor decisions and a lack of a proper counter to the smartphone wave. In short, the time was right for a third way, a play for the blue ocean, something to completely take the consumer aback, and Microsoft was absolutely convinced it had the solution.
And it wasn’t Windows Phone.
The Kin, a tiny pebble shaped device, was the result of much investment. Carefully calculated to ignite the youth market, it had a very different look, and an OS designed to delight those who loved to share. It was a stark counterpart to the comparatively utilitarian and business focused Windows Mobile, that had enjoyed some support but had unfortunately arrived before the eventual smartphone boom. The Kin was a new start, a fresh direction, moreover, it was intended to out ‘iPhone’ the iPhone.
Yet, despite the market research, and some real promise, it tanked, and quickly, a victim of supply without demand. Microsoft had read the market and misjudged. Launched in May 2010, within two months Verizon stopped stocking the devices. This would be an ominous sign of things to come.
Several years previously, Microsoft, like Nokia, had laughed off the launch of the iPhone. Under Steve Ballmer, the company, again like Nokia, was suffering from an odd internal structure, and a future that was slipping from its fingers. Shocked by the failure of the Kin, Redmond was spurred into action. More and more resources were desperately funnelled into Windows 7, first debuted at MWC 2010, with devices from various OEMs.
Yet a few months on from that point, no matter what Redmond tried, the Windows Phone boat had yet to leave the safety of coastal waters. Adoption, initially enthusiastic, had all but dried up, creating something of a catch-22, the app problem. With no-one to make apps, the consumers wouldn’t come, and yet with no consumers available, there would be no audience to justify the development of apps. And as time went by, its competitors only became stronger and their audiences more invested, leaving even less of a reason to switch.
The same manufacturers that had been so supportive at the start of the voyage began to stray too. Samsung and HTC turned their efforts to Android, while the likes of Dell simply jumped overboard. So why was this the case?
In part, the very model on which Windows Phone 7 had been founded was flawed. Microsoft chose to dictate hardware specifications to manufacturers, along with design language requirements; and this was on top of the software, which was to remain untouched. What leeway did that leave the manufacturer? Why go to all the effort when Android was both free to develop for and far more popular?
This extended to the developer too, forced to abide by specific design guidelines, a lot of work for an unproven area.
This control, although providing a somewhat guaranteed level of quality for the consumer, proved to be a little too much. Microsoft was simply unwilling to let go. Although it idolized the success of its main competitor, Apple, the fruity firm had been able to dictate the terms of its progress by dint of simply arriving first, and by manufacturing its own hardware.
Then of course there was the matter of monetization. This was a time in which investors were entranced by the promise of mobile, keen to throw their money into the abyss, without considering the simple issue of how to turn a profit. Windows Phone 7, with poor hardware and software sales, also had a somewhat restrictive model for monetization, which was something that savvy minds began to realise rather quickly, much to the detriment of the OS.
Needless to say, a storm was brewing; and so, sensing the way the wind was turning, Microsoft did the only thing it knew it could, it gutted the ship and built one anew, a different OS, Windows Phone 8.
Released, somewhat appropriately, near Halloween in 2012, Windows Phone 8 was built from the ground up to be better than its predecessor. Introducing a new design language, improved multi-tasking features, ‘Rooms’ and a whole host of other features, the new operating system achieved feature parity with its competitors while also maintaining a distinct flavour, something for which it was roundly praised.
And yet, as might be expected given its already tumultuous history, there was a problem: Windows Phone 7 users had been left behind. Due to a fundamental difference in the kernals used for the OS construction, software between the two was incompatible. This had the double effect for Microsoft of simultaneously eliminating a loyal existing base of users and developers, while making sure than nothing existed for the future. Although the loss may have been judged as acceptable, given the small scale, the press was terrible, and consumer confidence was shaken.
Drastic action was needed, Nokia was called in. And, helmed by former Microsoft man Stephen Elop, what was then still the biggest phone manufacturer in the world gave its all to the fight, and in the fray, the Lumia line was born.
With a colourful, iconic design language, the Lumia hardware, best shown through the likes of the 920, was the perfect match for the bold live tiles of Windows Phone 8. Indeed, the 920 would go on to become something of a poster-child.
Still, despite Microsoft’s fresh coat of paint and new, powerful partner, the same structural weaknesses remained, and new ones began to open.
Nokia’s landslide of Windows Phone releases under the Lumia line had a somewhat unintended effect for Microsoft in that it drowned the competition. HTC and Samsung, never that committed to begin with, closed up shop, discontinuing their respective product lines.
Only Lumia was left, accounting for well over 95% of all Windows Phone devices sold. And yet, despite what efforts it had made, the slow rot that had set into Nokia years earlier began to reach its heart. This, and the losses that the firm was consistently being forced to endure, prompted drastic action on the part of its board of directors.
Thus, a deal was done, and Ballmer’s vision of Microsoft as a hardware firm came into reality, with the purchase of Nokia’s Devices and Services division for $7.2 billion. In doing this, Redmond accepted full responsibility for the direction of its OS, and also further compounded the already significant problems that continued to plague its business model.
The flood of Lumias was now the tech giant’s concern, leaving it in direct competition with what few were left, leaving no room for others.
And now, we arrive in the present, where things are dimmer still. The Lumia line, once loud and proud, has reportedly been trimmed to a meagre six annual offerings. Nokia’s Devices and Services division has been written off, to the tune of $7.6 billion. And Microsoft, once again sensing the way that the wind is blowing, has opted to start again, with the launch of Windows 10 Mobile now imminent.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Windows Phone was such a beautiful dream, but now another may begin”[/pullquote]
Kantar currently places Windows Phone at 3.0% market-share in the USA. In the UK, this figure is slightly higher at 11.4%. And yet, when both Android and iPhone almost exclusively dominate the rest of the market, in a pattern that is repeated throughout the world, Microsoft has had to temper its ambitions. Satya Nadella, Ballmer’s replacement, is a canny thinker, and in reducing the Lumia lineup to a mere 6 devices a year, he has both drawn a line in the sand regarding the firms intentions in this area, while also planting the seeds for the future success of Windows Phone. Now that other OEMs have less competition, they may feel more inclined to join the party that was once so crowded with close family members.
So what can be learned from the past of Windows Phone, in order to best avoid its mistakes and repeat its greatest successes? The lessons are many, but all have their root in Microsoft having been caught resting on its laurels; if its new mobile OS is to succeed, it must pursue its future with a vision and energy that has hitherto been lacking, the doldrums must be left behind.
Windows Phone was such a beautiful dream, but now another may begin.
What do you think should have been done differently? Let us know in the comments below.