Plan B for Windows Phone?

Plan B for Windows Phone?

For both Microsoft and its users

I love Windows Phone, and I make no apologies for that. But I'm also pragmatic: With just 4 percent of the smart phone market, Windows Phone is an underdog, and even a hoped-for jump to 10 percent of the market by 2018 won't change that. With the rest of the world racing forward with Android and iOS, what are the options?

There are different ways to frame this question, of course. Looking at it from Microsoft's perspective, the firm would obviously prefer that customers use as many of its platforms—Windows, Office, Xbox and so on—as possible. But if customers are increasingly leaving Windows (including Phone) for rival computing platforms, then the company can only work to ensure that its other platforms are ably represented there as well. And they are absolutely doing that.

I'm interested in that perspective, of course. But I'm perhaps more interested in how this change impacts actual users. You know, you and me. That is, if Windows Phone becomes untenable or is outright removed from the equation—either through an unlikely cancelation of the product line or a more likely merger with Windows RT—then what do our options look like?

Not surprisingly, the fate of Microsoft's platforms are intertwined with the decisions its user base will make going forward. What Microsoft does, how the industry evolves, and other factors will all help determine what we do in the future.

Aside from the Windows RT/Phone rumors we've already discussed—check out Getting Windows to the Threshold for the most recent article—there are a number of potential changes coming from the Microsoft front.

First, Microsoft already sells a line of Nokia X smart phones in markets outside the US. Nokia announced the first generation X devices back in February, and now that Nokia is part of Microsoft, the software giant recently announced a significant update to the lineup.

I've savaged Nokia X because I don't think it does anything better than Windows Phone on the same hardware and at the same prices. But then Nokia X not being Windows Phone may in fact be the point. While these devices are often described as "Android" phones, they're really AOSP (or Android Open Source Project) phones, meaning that they only provide the free base Android OS and none of the valuable and useful Google apps and services. (Nokia/Microsoft of course provides their own apps and services instead.) But there's an upside to AOSP: It is a lot easier for a developer to port their existing Android apps to Nokia X than it is to port such an app to Windows Phone. It's the same underlying platform.

So while Microsoft may not have been happy about Nokia making the X lineup, they may now view the products as a Trojan horse of sorts. A plan B, if you will.

There are also rumors that Microsoft will let Windows Phone run Android apps somehow, and probably using something similar to the technology Blackberry uses to let Android apps run on their latest mobile platform. Such technologies are inelegant, inefficient, and imperfect and are perhaps more importantly a signaling of defeat. (Like letting Macbook users install Windows.) But this capability would be embraced by some users.

Tom Warren thinks that Nokia X and Android app compatibility on Windows/Phone are part of the same strategy. He recently tweeted, "I think Nokia X is a long play that will become [clearer] once Windows Phone/RT gets Android apps." I think they're related—assuming the Android on Windows/Phone bit is real—and it is indeed possible that getting Android apps running on Windows/Phone would be a step towards just replacing the underpinnings of Windows Phone with AOSP. That is, in this scenario, Nokia X is the future of Windows Phone.

I think of that as Plan C, I guess, and it's a long shot. That said, Microsoft has been very effective in updating the Windows Phone platform over time, from the .NET./Silverlight stuff in Windows Phone 7.x to the Windows Phone Runtime (WinPRT) platform in Windows Phone 8 to the Windows Runtime (WinRT) in Windows Phone 8.1. It's not inconceivable they could do it yet again, this time to AOSP. I'm not saying they will, just that it's possible. And that such a platform could provide an evolved Windows Phone user experience and run both Windows Phone and Android apps natively. It's an interesting thought.

Barring these crazy changes, you could of course look to the market leaders, Android and iOS. This isn't as heretical as it once sounded, given the improvements to both platforms (especially over this and last year) and Microsoft's commitment to both. That is, even a guy firmly in the Microsoft camp can be comfortable using an Android handset or tablet, or an iPhone or iPad, since every major Microsoft app and service is available on each, or will be soon. (Some major advances, like full Office for Android tablets, will ship sometime this year.)

Of the two, Android is the closest to Windows in that there is a diverse range of hardware models and form factors (and, correspondingly, prices) from which to choose, and Android is "open" (both literally and to stupidity) in the same way that Windows is. That is, all mobile platforms are walled gardens of some kind, and have varying levels of control over what users can and cannot do, but Android is the most open, and it can be ripped wide open if desired.

Apple's current hardware lineup is mixed—the iPhone 5S/5C are too small to be useful for many, with postage stamp-sized screens, but the iPad Air and iPad mini are both first-class products with widespread appeal—but that's changing too. Rumors about a two model iPhone 6 lineup, due in September, seem compelling, and if what we're seeing is even remotely true, it looks like Apple will be providing two devices, a smart phone with a reasonable 4.7-inch screen (5-inches is the current ideal, I think) and a phablet with a large 5.5-inch screen. Between the excellent improvements—and true platform extensibility, a first for this platform—that we're seeing in iOS 8, these iPhones could finally make the leap from mindless consumer purchase to something truly desirable to people who know what they're really doing. I'm very curious to see what happens there.

Regardless of what Apple does with iPhone, both current iPad models are probably the best overall choices in their respective markets. And iOS benefits from the best and broadest app store, plus other ecosystem services (iTunes U, podcasts, and so on). The only issue that remains—and I had a litany of issues with iOS/Apple for quite a while there—is that Apple's belligerent stance towards competing content stores significantly derails the experience in many apps. But the situation, overall, is much better than it's ever been.

And you could always mix and match. There's nothing wrong with someone using a Windows PC, an iPad and an Android smart phone, for example. And if you are someone who, like me, uses and relies on a wide range of Microsoft services, you will be well served by the availability of Microsoft apps on both of the mobile platforms, each tied to key Microsoft services.

I will continue using Windows Phone, but I will also continue testing the latest Android and iOS devices as I have for years, so I'll be ready if anything changes. The best part for anyone on the fence is that the pseudo-religious platform battles of the past are starting to ring hollow today: Android and iOS are both mature mobile platforms, of course, but they're also better than they were and more applicable to the Microsoft guy. It's no longer us or them. It can be both us and them.

But I hope Windows Phone survives and then thrives. Microsoft did something special there and it deserves to be successful.

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