I don’t own a Windows Phone, and I’ve never really used one for any serious period of time. I did, however, seriously consider buying one for a while--and researched them quite a bit. I also hear, over and over, that Windows Phone really is an amazing operating system. Based upon what I’ve experienced with Windows 8 in tablet form, I’m inclined to believe that Windows Phone would be a truly fantastic operating system. Despite all of this, I can’t help but think that Windows Phone is all but dead.
Is Microsoft's Vision of 'Windows Everywhere' Too Late?
While there are a couple of indicators that Windows Phone is on its way to becoming nothing more than a footnote in history, there are some potential reasons to assume that Microsoft might be able to re-invigorate this platform and even make it successful.
First--and foremost in my mind--has been the change in leadership. In the year or so that Satya Nadella has been CEO of Microsoft, I swear we’re seeing Microsoft starting to become a bit more lean, and faster at iterating and pivoting than was the case previously. I’m sure that this change is the culmination of years’ worth of effort on the part of many people at Microsoft. However, there’s no doubt that Microsoft’s new CEO is fostering increased responsiveness to customer needs and is working toward making the company more agile and better able to pivot in response to market trends.
Better yet, just the mere fact that we’re hearing about “One Windows Everywhere” again is terribly refreshing. To me, it’s as if Microsoft is harkening back to Bill Gates' original vision of what Windows and Microsoft could become--a place where users would want to use Windows because it made them more productive. (This is a much better focus than Ballmer’s “Screw the customers--let’s make the shareholders happy” approach to leadership.)
So, while Windows Phone’s current market share and outlook certainly appear bleak, it’s possible to assume that a nimbler, more responsive and more agile Microsoft might be able to actually "pivot" with Windows Phone and make something out of it. As an example of how this might actually play out, look no further than a recent story outlining how Microsoft is trying to work with Android manufacturers to create an option that would let Android users flash their phone’s ROM to allow them to run fully supported versions of Windows 10. Say what you want, but that’s showing some amazing inventiveness and ‘hustle’ on Microsoft’s part.
It's the Apps, Silly!
Still, if there’s a glaringly obvious hole in Microsoft’s current offering, it's the company's completely underwhelming app experience. Again, I don’t own a Windows Phone, but time spent online, keeping up with trends, talking to users and researching Windows Phone all leads to the conclusion that the App Store for Windows Phone sucks.
Better yet, as an avid fan of Windows 8.1, I’ve actually spent gobs of time perusing titles in the Windows App Store. And, while there are a few decent apps here and there, most of the time I find myself mindlessly scrolling through app after app in the store--not because I’m even remotely hopeful of finding an app but, rather--like watching a train-wreck--I really can’t believe how bad things are and just cannot look away.
Interestingly enough, as a developer, I’ve thought a few times about building apps for both Windows 8 and Windows Phone. I’ve even documented some details about a couple of apps I think would be useful. But I’ll likely never execute on them simply because I’ve heard way too many horror stories about interacting with the Windows App Store as a developer, and because I can’t see that the current market size would make my efforts worthwhile.
And I think that last point is what will finally doom Windows Phone. Not only is there a seeming dearth of apps (compared to stores for Android and Apple), but even when apps are sometimes written and created by larger vendors seeking a presence within Microsoft’s stores, the apps tend to be horrible.
Take, for example, the Kindle app--something that is borderline a requirement for any platform (at least in my book). Within the Windows 8.1 ecosystem, let’s just say that the application is anemic. On the Windows Phone, it looks like it struggles to even reach anemic, based upon user reviews and feedback. Granted, while I can (and do) fault Amazon for not taking better care of Windows users, the reality is that the market benefit for doing simply can’t be as worthwhile as taking care of Android and Apple users.
Windows Phone Catch-22
Consequently, Windows Phone is left in an ugly spot--where Microsoft has failed to create a truly viable ecosystem (or achieve the network effect). Currently, there simply aren’t enough users of Windows Phone to attract the developers needed to create and maintain viable apps; and without those apps, there’s not enough enticement for users.This puts Windows Phone in a vicious Catch-22 situation.
Interestingly enough, though, Apple and Android both had to make their way through this same problem. Only, where Apple and Android prevailed, Microsoft has patently failed. Personally, I think it has a lot to do with bone-headed decisions to treat .NET developers as fifth-class citizens by demoting .NET in favor of "native HTML" apps and the like (without a fully backed set of underling APIs), and making developer registration processes (initially) too tedious, cumbersome and arbitrary for most developers to tolerate.
In short, Microsoft blew it in its initial efforts to build an ecosystem, and now, frankly, things have just stalled. Personally, I blame a lot of this on Ballmer and his crappy leadership ("Screw consumers and screw developers; Apple’s making tons from its App Store--I want one too!”) But, regardless of where the fault actually lies, the result is the same: Microsoft is left in an unenviable position where it can’t attract consumers or developers. As such, I think that the Windows Phone is dead--unless something drastic changes.