June 03, 2016
Microsoft has always embraced new technologies. The famous Internet memo from Bill Gates cemented Microsoft in the Internet Age of computing.
Microsoft was a pioneer in smart phones, being responsible for the partially successful but not very consumer friendly Windows Mobile platform with the Windows CE kernel. They had touch screen phones way before the iPhone, and even had apps too. But there were systemic technical and usability problems with the platform. But Microsoft aren't finished in the mobile arena. CEO Satya Nadella is reinventing Microsoft as Mobile-First Cloud-First. But recent events has left people confused as to Windows Mobile's future. Fans of the platform will be happy to know the future isn't as grim as being reported, but as always there is more to the details than a sensationalist headline.
Lumia was a terrible brand
Windows Phone fans have known for a long time that the Lumia brand has not been selling Windows phones. The brand itself it terrible. You only have to ask someone unfamiliar with the brand to spell it, for it to be spelt completely wrong. Nokia didn't even secure the domain name for what should have been a unique brand name. Searching for the most common incorrect spelling leaves you wondering if the product actually exists. This is part of the Nokia acquisition bagged and I believe Microsoft will either need to reinvent the brand or replace it with something new. Reinvention isn't out of the question as Microsoft were able to reinvent Surface.
It seems likely Microsoft will end up going for the Surface brand, but probably not for the reason you think. Surface became a successful brand through reinvention, but applying that brand to Lumia devices won't suddenly sell the product. A Surface branded phone has to be special and appeal to the same sense of quality and design treatments that embodies Surface. Microsoft Premium Devices lead Panos Panay has said he wants a consistent design language for all Microsoft premium devices, this is the biggest hint we have that the Lumia brand is being retired and Surface Phone or another brand will be the future.
People Feel Strongly About Abandonment
After being abandoned by an OEM, Android users will often escape to the magical world of iOS where they will get updates for 4+ years. Can you say the same about any other phone manufacturer? High end phones are now as fast as low end laptops, there is no reason why a Snapdragon 810 should be obsolete in 4 years when the Atom PC is still getting Windows updates. And this is how Windows Phone owners felt for much of the operating system's life. Microsoft took Windows Mobile 6, buried it alive and replaced it with a product that had half the features.
Windows Mobile Wasn't the Answer
Windows Mobile, based on Windows CE had a brief period of popularity with businesses users consistently shipping 3-4 million units per quarter right up until it was replaced by Windows Phone 7. You can see from the Wikipedia compiled data that Windows Phone, the more consumer orientated phone had a slow start eventually surpassing the corporate ceiling occupied by Windows Mobile 6 and eventually declining to Windows Mobile numbers.
Windows Mobile had a lot of features that were well ahead of it's time. The first iPhone didn't even have 3G, applications, or MMS all of which Windows Mobile had all within a concurrent multitasking operating system based on the Windows NT kernel. Anyone who used it quickly discovered the limitations of the ROM architecture and the Microsoft .Net Compact Framework which made code sharing difficult. Devices were just not powerful enough and storage was too limited to include feature parity of a full Microsoft .Net Framework, and Direct X support.
Windows Phone Wasn't the Answer
The same hardware limitations were true of Windows Phone 7 which had to deliver an improved user experience suitable for consumers on rather much the same hardware. This is where Windows 7 borrowed from the Zune software and in a rather hurried move Microsoft Launched Windows Phone 7. This hurried state of development eventually came to hurt Microsoft as they lost much of their core following after dropping much of the Activesync Mobile Device Manager support that corporations demanded, temporarily handing those users to Blackberry (and eventually iPhone).
Microsoft further lost interest as Windows Phone 8, and Windows Phone 8.1 rolled out. Many users were left without an upgrade path for the hardware they already had to the new version unlike Windows Mobile users had become accustomed and with which iPhone users gloated. Windows Phone struggled to keep up with the latest features being added to iOS and Android, and fell further behind all while still not having full Microsoft .Net/WPF API compatibility with Windows 8 despite having moved to a full Windows NT Kernel.
Enter Windows 10
As Microsoft made moves to unify Windows desktop, phone, and tablet with Windows 8, they never quite made it. With Windows 10 Microsoft promised full compatibility, and for the most part they are there. The Threshold builds are a start but have serious persistent reliability issues and added bloat from Windows 8. But overall the reception on the desktop has been largely positive. Full API compatibility with the desktop finally gives developers what they wanted to begin with, and moving to OneCore with Redstone builds promises to further unify the experience for both users and developers.
Any talk of being too late to the race is non-sense intent on keeping newer products out of the market. In every way the iPhone was too late, with every patent case Steve Jobs brought against the competition resulting in prior art invalidating most claims sought by Apple. In every other way Android was a solution looking for a market.
Android Got Lucky
It was a fateful marriage to Google and a desire to unseat Apple that led to the rise of Android. People didn't buy open source, in fact they were locked into phones with OEM customised software they couldn't change with worse software maintenance support than the feature phones they replaced. It was refocusing under Google from a blackberry clone, to a sharpening of focus to take on what seemed like an unstoppable iOS that gave birth to the rise of Android. Manufactures were looking for a way to compete with the iPhone, already having a tepid response to Windows Mobile and Symbian with most manufactures having stakes in both camps. OEMs were open to the relatively small investment required to make Android handsets.
Microsoft Doesn't Want Finland
American acquisitions of overseas companies typically go two ways. Either the entity is left doing what they were doing before hand, or more commonly they are integrated, a cultural war of "not invented here" syndrome quietly bubbles away until the foreign trouble makers are shown the door. In the case of Microsoft vs. Nokia, just above everyone from Microsoft Mobile in Finland has lost their job as Microsoft realised they don't need them. Aside from history warning signs of this happening date back to 2015 where Microsoft restructured Microsoft Mobile expanding the porfolio of Panos Panay beyond Surface to all Microsoft Premium Devices (Surface, Windows Mobiles, and Xbox). Panos Panay needs to see the product evolve and the Surface team are well equipped at Redmond to take over Windows Mobile.
Why Windows Mobile is Slated for a 2017 Comeback
Consumer electronics engineering product cycles have a lifecycle from conception to delivery of 18 months to 3 years. The Lumia 950, 650, and 550 are a final clearing out of the old, a tie over of the acquired Nokia IP until Microsoft can design a replacement in their own right. From announcing the Nokia acquisition deal in April 2014, that gives us until April 2017 until Microsoft can deliver a new premium product in their own right. The Surface team even talks about the 3 year development cycle here (starts at the 25 minute mark), and the lifecycle was very visible in the Google acquisition of Motorola with the Moto X flagship being released 32 months after the deal with finalised. In the Apple camp it took 30 months from 2004 to 2007 to develop the first iPhone. For Microsoft we are at the 26 month point, and Windows 10 Red Stone wave 1 being released in July (27 months), but it is likely for Microsoft to wait for Red Stone wave 2 which will bring further stability to Windows 10 mobile and into line with the Qualcomm refresh cycle.