Microsoft has finally acknowledged for good what the rest of us have known for some time. Windows 10 Mobile has bought the farm, kicked the bucket, left the building, and passed on. Said in that particular order, it makes it sound as if the OS is perhaps enjoying a well-deserved retirement after some years delivering rural mail to an ever-shrinking customer base.
In corporate speak, of course, things are not so expressive. In a recent series of Tweets, Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for Windows, confirmed Windows 10 Mobile is dead. While the company will continue to offer bug fixes and corporate support for pre-existing accounts, there will be no new feature updates or rollouts.
Windows 10 Mobile’s fans, of which there are at least several, argued this was evidence that Microsoft had variously dropped the ball at points in the Windows 10 Mobile rollout, which is both true and false. On the one hand, CEO Satya Nadella made it clear he didn’t have much use for mobile when he took over the company from Steve Ballmer. On the other, Windows Phone was already on life support when Nadella got the job. Claiming that Microsoft should’ve continued pumping out hardware in perpetuity ignores how Windows Phone and Windows Mobile had peaked at some point prior to when Nadella got the job and began declining thereafter. There was no point at which Nadella could argue he was even seeing the hint of a turn-around.
Companies with product lines in steady decline may still invest in their ecosystems if the existing user base is large or rich enough. But even this strategy has its limits. Microsoft could afford to continue investing in Windows 10 Mobile, but what would be the point if customers weren’t moving to the platform? Microsoft might have had a ghost of a chance of expanding its market share if Windows 10 Mobile had been feature-complete on the same day Windows 10 launched, but it wasn’t. Then Redmond spent a year mostly destroying its own reputation by trying to cajole, trick, and force people into upgrading from Windows 7 or Windows 8 on to Windows 10 on the desktop. I’m not saying this was the reason Windows 10 Mobile didn’t succeed, but I’m certain it didn’t help.
The biggest single problem with Windows 10 Mobile was that the unified Windows session data and portability it offered arrived five years too late. If Windows Phone 7 had been built with lightweight versions of Continuum or “Pick Up Where I Left Off,” Redmond might’ve been able to stave off iOS or Android altogether. Plenty of people didn’t have smartphones yet in 2010 or 2011, which means they weren’t really locked into a new ecosystem. A flawless Windows integration would’ve been appealing to many customers. The problem, of course, was that Microsoft had no real provision for that kind of switch. Previous iterations of its mobile operating systems had used Windows CE, which had a very different codebase than the then-current Windows 7.
There are other things Microsoft could’ve tried to do differently, like supporting more devices with upgrades from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8, but I’m not sure how much they would’ve mattered. The big-picture features that would’ve given Microsoft a real use-case against upstarts like iOS and Android required a level of integration mobile devices of the day might not have been able to handle, no matter how lightweight the company tried to make them. By the time the hardware and software stack were both ready, the majority of mobile customers weren’t looking for a new operating system. Bearing the entire cost of designing and bringing a high-end product to market was never going to be attractive to Nadella, not without some concrete sign that a market existed for it. That sign never appeared.
It’s hard to blame Microsoft for not being willing to continue to chase a market that wasn’t interested in what it was selling. Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile were better operating systems than they got credit for being, but they weren’t in the right place at the right time. There will be no Surface Phone riding over the horizon with the calvary.