With last week’s write down of $7.6 billion, Microsoft has finished the chapter of its corporate career marked ‘Nokia’, and arguably the book titled ’Windows Phone’. With a renewed focus on software the need for a leading phone business has lessened at Microsoft, and the Finnish company’s former devices and services section is surplus to requirements. There is much to learn from this adventure, and anyone looking to make as serious play in mobile hardware and software in the future will find lessons in the story of ‘the third platform.’
As CEO Satya Nadella said alongside the announcement, ”We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem including our first-party device family, and bringing users into the Microsoft cloud no matter the platform they are using.”
I’m confident that Microsoft will continue to design, manufacture, and retail smartphones, but it will now be more along the lines of a Google Nexus than a Samsung Galaxy S6. It will show the power and potential of Windows 10 in a smartphone setting, it will likely use high-end components to create the biggest experience possible, and it will likely be available in small numbers. Having a flagship focused on demonstration rather than market share is an issue I discussed last week here on Forbes, and it matches Nadella’s statements for a few days ago when he said “In the near-term, we’ll run a more effective and focused phone portfolio while retaining capability for long-term reinvention in mobility.”
Microsoft’s handling of ‘the second age of the smartphone’ will be studied and discussed for many years to come. Windows Mobile was a robust operating system which was targeted at business and enterprise users. It was the leading mobile OS in the US, at the same time as the Symbian OS consortium ruled Europe.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the two lumbering giants sought each other as both iOS and Android moved in on the entrenched views of what a smartphone should be able to do. But dance together they did. Microsoft started in 2010 with a blank sheet of paper after Windows Mobile to create Windows Phone, and the financial markets presented Nokia with a simple choice of being the big fish in a small pond by adopting Windows Phone or being a small fish in a much larger pond by using Android. Nokia chose the former.
To be fair, at the time of the decision the Android option presented a slow death to subservience at the feet of Google’s broad church of synergy between manufacturers, while there was a chance of rolling a double-six with Microsoft. If Windows Phone found a significant audience, if the marketing and the management was on the nose, if the development of the OS kept pace with the latest trends, there was a chance that Nokia would be, if not at the very top of the pile, somewhere close.
History tells us that Nokia did not defeat the odds. But inside the last five years are a number of lessons that the modern smartphone entrepreneur should think about.
The Application Question Can Kill Your Platform
It always strikes me as curious that Steve Ballmer’s greatest claim to fame is a simple chant that Windows Phone never managed to embrace. “Developers, developers, developers” was the cry that Ballmer will be remembered for. It was also the number one concern for Windows Phone.
With no third-party developers there were no apps. With no apps Windows Phone was at a serious disadvantage to Android and iOS as the app-economy dominated smartphones. With no impact in the app-economy, no A-list titles, or desirable start-ups targeting the platform, Windows Phone effectively had no users. And with no users developers were unlikely to target the platform.
Microsoft did its best to tempt developers to the platform, and while a number of them did come to the platform, the rest of the legion working on Android and iOS nodded politely and carried on addressing those two platforms.
Applications are everything in the mobile world today. No matter how cute, useful, or innovative a platform is, unless it can match the library available on the two main platforms from Google and Apple, only a handful of the geekerati will consider looking at a smaller platform. Numerous boutique outfits have turned to ‘Android compatible’ and the ability to run Android apps on a handset with an alternative operating system, as if this sticking plaster over the apps question is a long-term answer of getting apps on a system.
Providing the toolset is not enough. Microsoft provided all the tools you could need for Windows Phone developers, and it never raised an army of developers. Countless web services offer API hooks, open data, and access to real-time information in pitches, but unless the developers follow of their own volition, these ideas add up to nothing but wasted effort.
Developers are the lifeblood of any modern system.
Innovate And Iterate As Fast As Possible
On its first release, Windows Phone (going by the name Windows Phone 7) was missing a number of key features (including multi-tasking of apps; cut, copy, and paste; and data tethering). These were not quickly forthcoming, with an interim Windows Phone 7.5 release arriving a year later, and Windows Phone 8 taking two years to reach the market. While OS updates have never been particularly speedy across any major platform, Windows Phone took an age to deliver even basic updates. And when those updates did arrive in the form of Windows Phone 8, backwards compatibility with Windows Phone 7 hardware was not present, alienating those who had moved to the platform with the early devices.
Both iOS and Android are now comfortably in a yearly cycle for the major operating system releases, but Apple continues to push out point releases for iOS throughout the year to increase the feature set and address bugs. Google might not be able to push as many over-the-air updates as it would like, but the ability to update the Google Play Services every six weeks allows for a modicum of patches to the OS, and of course built-in apps are updated through the Play Store mechanism.
Any platform needs continual innovation and support, it needs clear feedback to users, and people need to be able to trust that there will be compatibility. Windows Phone burned all of those bridges before it hit its stride with Windows Phone 8.1. By the time it reached that version, many consumers had moved on.
It’s All About The Name
Still in use today, probably the biggest flaw in Windows Phone was the word Windows. Microsoft’s Xbox console had shows that it was still possible for Redmond to have a hit alongside the name Microsoft, but by tying the fortunes of the mobile platform so closely to the desktop software, the platform was tied to the millstone that was Windows.
As more smartphones move towards an understanding of specification where good enough reaches from the flagship down to the budget models, the power of the brand name is king. Nokia’s name still has a powerful romantic effect on the market (look at the love when there is even a hint the Finnish company is coming back to the smartphone market), Samsung spends heavily to promote the ‘Galaxy’ brand across the full range of devices, and everyone who has sat in front of a computer has a relationship with ‘Microsoft Windows’.
If a powerful brand can be built, so much the better, but weighing down a project with a poor brand, with a bad history, and with awkward historical baggage, will never work. Start-ups with no brand power have to go out and create that themselves, while incumbents will need to balance carefully the value between recognition and a fresh start.
Windows Phone had a chance, and I full believe that it was a contender. And for many (including myself) it was a competent operating system that looked at the smartphone world in a different way. It treated data as being more important than the applications that held the data, it broke away from a grid of apps to something more focused on a users lifestyle, and it had a strong and loyal following.
Yet it missed taking care of the basics.
It missed fitting in with the smartphone world. It solved problems that had already been solved and failed to address the new ones. It didn’t evolve quickly enough to cope with the changing world. Windows Phone told the same story that countless technology companies before it had told. The idea was there, the building blocks were right, but the implementation fell short of what was required.