Sorry Windows Phone, you just don't matter right now
For a while, it really felt like Windows could become the true third option when it came to mobile devices. Even as recently as the last couple years, it sounded as though Microsoft would be putting effort in to improve the app ecosystem and unify Windows across platforms. And, that has been done to a certain extent, but even so, Windows Phone just doesn't really matter anymore.
I personally had high hopes from Windows Phone. Four years ago, I made the switch to Windows Phone to test out the OS and give it an honest look. Windows Phone 7 was a solid system and I even said at the time that "Windows Phone is simply very well thought out, and there are often features that you never would have expected," and that "the core Windows Phone system can certainly stand up to Android, and even surpass Google’s offerings in some key areas." I wasn't willing to stick with Windows Phone because my life is too deeply embedded in the Google ecosystem, but I certainly saw the value of it for those who weren't living la vida Google.
Unfortunately, aside from the addition of Cortana, the Windows Phone experience hasn't made the same leaps that Android has between Jelly Bean (4.1) and Marshmallow (6.0). Microsoft bought Nokia, but has been lax about putting out new phones, and other manufacturers have essentially abandoned Windows completely. There was a lot of promise for Windows 10 on phones, but the rollout has been painfully slow, and while universal apps have helped the ecosystem to a certain extent, Windows Phone still lags behind Android and iOS.
Then the hammer dropped with the latest smartphone sales numbers from Gartner which showed that in Q4 2015, Android made up 80.7% of smartphones sold, iOS took 17.7%, and Windows made up a very sad 1.1%. Even worse, Windows had accounted for 2.8% of sales in Q4 2014, so sales have officially gone down the drain.
I'd like to think that there is still hope for a resurgence by Windows in the smartphone market, but I fully acknowledge that I may be trying a bit too hard to be an optimist in this situation. Ultimately, I find it hard to completely discount Microsoft from the equation. Windows 10 has been doing well on traditional PCs and Microsoft has been doing everything possible to create the hybrid tablet/laptop market with the Surface line and solid offerings from OEM partners. Microsoft has enough money to throw behind Windows Phone that the platform might not be completely dead, but until Microsoft starts putting out new hardware on a more consistent basis and can lure other manufacturers back to the platform, things look grim.
But, grim is not the same as hopeless. A lot of the potential with Windows rides on universal apps and how well Microsoft can convince users that convergence is the way forward. Any long time readers will know that I love the idea of convergence. That idea alone gave me brief hope that Ubuntu could make a dent in the mobile market, but Microsoft has been much faster at getting to a working model of convergence with Continuum than Canonical has with Ubuntu. We're already seeing Continuum on Windows Phone handsets, but with no one buying those devices, what does it really matter?
It matters quite a lot actually. Smartphones are already the most powerful computer that most people own. Only a select group of users still bother with desktops, laptops are quickly becoming niche devices, as are tablets; and globally, there are far more people for whom a smartphone is their primary (and in some cases only) computing device. In a world like that, Microsoft has both an advantage and a disadvantage.
The advantage that Microsoft has been trying to play up as much as possible is that for those out there who have traditional PCs, the vast majority are Windows users. So, if Microsoft can get universal apps sorted out and prove to users that all they need is a Windows smartphone to be able to do everything in mobile use cases all the way to desktop, that's a powerful thing; it's something powerful enough to revive a near-dead Windows Phone market. And, you can be sure that Microsoft is working hard on doing just that.
The disadvantage that Microsoft has is that despite Windows' dominant position in the PC world, the PC world doesn't much matter anymore. As noted above, there are a huge number of people in the world for whom a smartphone is their primacy computing device, and Android dominates that segment.
In May of last year, Microsoft estimated that there were 1.5 billion active Windows devices in the wild -- and to be clear, this includes all Windows devices from desktops, laptops, tablets, hybrids, and phones. For comparison, Google announced 1.4 billion active Android devices in the world in September of last year -- and to be clear here as well, that only counts Android devices with Google Play services, it doesn't count Android devices in China and Russia without Google Play, which is a large number in its own right. Microsoft said its aim was to have Windows 10 running on 1 billion devices within two to three years of releasing the OS and has offered the upgrade for free to anyone on Windows 7 or higher in order to more quickly reach that number.
Microsoft's convergence dream still holds weight here, because although the company has seemingly failed in the smartphone space, that's really the only space where Google has an advantage. Google hasn't been able to make much headway in the tablet market where the iPad is still king; Google's attempts at breaking into the TV market have largely failed; and, Google is years away from having a version of Android to be used on laptops and desktops, though word is that Google will be creating some sort of Android/Chrome OS hybrid for that task by next year. Google hasn't always been able to get developers in line, so it could be an interesting race to see if Microsoft can get devs to make universal apps faster than Google can get devs to update Android apps for bigger screens (a task it hasn't done well at with tablets).
Apple has always been able to get its developers in line, which is why it has solid offerings in the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Mac OS. But, Apple has also made it clear that it has no real plans to converge iOS and Mac OS, which would mean Apple may not have a one-device-to-rule-them-all option for a long time. The smart money there would be that Apple will wait to see if Microsoft or Google can crack that market first, then Apple will come in later, as it tends to do. In the meantime, Apple users will have to buy separate devices to fit differing needs and use cases.
The interesting test will be whether Microsoft can crack it from the top down - get PC users to buy into Windows Phone to have a unified experience - or Google can crack it from the bottom up and get smartphone users to want to use PCs again. Given the strength of the mobile market right now, I'd probably bet on Google in that race, but technology changes quickly so it's not a certainty.
No matter what happens in that race, it's hard not to feel like Windows Phone doesn't really have a place in the world right now. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been saying since he took over the company that Microsoft would be focusing on a mobile-first and cloud-first strategy. Microsoft's cloud services have certainly been getting a lot of attention, but aside from laptop/tablet hybrids, the same can't be said for the company's efforts with mobile.
HP showed off a beast of a Windows Phone at MWC this week with the Elite X3, and the Lumia 650 also made an appearance, but the latter doesn't even support Continuum because it is such a low-spec device. Overall, that's not much for Windows fans to get excited about.
One small change that Microsoft could make in order to help itself out would be to put a premium label on apps in the Windows Store that are universal. It doesn't do this right now, which not only makes it more annoying to figure out what apps will play well with Continuum, but such a label would act as a bit of a mark of shame for developers that don't have universal apps. We've seen efforts like this before by other companies and it tends to work, so Microsoft should consider it. Once the app story has a brighter message, Microsoft would have a much easier time selling Windows Phone as a viable alternative. But, until Microsoft really puts some muscle behind Windows Phone, the platform isn't even an also-ran anymore. We can hope the platform is just hibernating, but that assumes Microsoft will be able to wake it up at some point.