Among the early knocks against Windows Phone was a sadly valid complaint: It simply wasn't suitable for many enterprises due to a lack of mobile device management policies, apps, and other deficiencies. But as we enter the second half of 2014, that's all changing. Maybe it's time to reconsider Windows Phone.
It's hard to remember the world into which Windows Phone was born. But in 2009, the iPhone—then two years old—had pretty much taken the world by storm. So Microsoft's efforts at that time were three-fold: Answer the iPhone, offer real-world benefits over Apple's offering, and get to market as quickly as possible. The only question was whether Microsoft was already too late, which sound comical if you're familiar with much-later-to-market offerings like Blackberry 10, Amazon Fire Phone, and Samsung Tizen, the latter of which may never happen.
Today, everything is different. In fact, unless you're particularly well-versed in Windows Phone, you may not even realize how much has changed.
No more consumer focus. It's hard to remember this, but when Windows Phone launched in 2010, it took one strategy right from the Apple playbook: It focused almost exclusively to consumers, not businesses. Hey, it worked for Apple. So, yes, there was an Office Mobile, but the phone connected directly to your Microsoft account and all the associated consumer services, including Xbox for games and, at the time, Zune for music. What Microsoft was shooting for was Apple's seamless connection between hardware, software and services. But businesses rebelled, and consumers were too busy buying up iPhones and Android handsets to care.
Serious enterprise policy support. Over its first few versions, Windows Phone lacked support for most of the Exchange ActiveSync (EAS)-based mobile device management policies that were being supported by the competition, in part because of the aforementioned consumer focus. This has improved dramatically in Windows Phone 8 and in particular with Windows Phone 8.1, which finally brings Microsoft's platform within spitting distance of Android and iOS when it comes to modern MDM support. The irony? Microsoft's competitors got there first and still offer a few advantages.
Taking good ideas from others when it makes sense. One of the things I really liked about Windows Phone out of the gate was that it didn't try to copy the iPhone pixel-by-pixel (as Google clearly did with Android, though the firm has certainly moved into more of a leadership position in recent years). That is, it wasn't just different to be different, it was better. It had big, expressive live tiles in an age when other smartphones had dull, lifeless icons and no notification centers. It was designed to "delight" its users, be heavily personalized, and tie directly into the consumer services—Facebook, Twitter—that people really cared about. That's all good, but Android and iOS have evolved, and now users have certain expectations. In Windows Phone 8.1, in particular, we see great ideas that started elsewhere: a real Notification Center and a Siri/Google Now-like voice-controlled digital personal assistant called Cortana.
No longer precious about the user experience. And speaking of expectations, Microsoft originally tried to enforce a "Metro" look and feel in apps created on the platform, which gave those apps a wonderfully consistent user experience. App makers didn't like it, however, because it pushed Microsoft's brand over their own. And when tier-A app makers like Facebook basically issued an ultimatum that their apps would be styled consistently across platforms, Microsoft wisely caved. It's more important to have the apps than to push a design ideal that some app developers simply aren't interested in.
Platform matters. When Windows Phone 7 was rushed out the door in 2010, it was a Windows CE-based system with Silverlight and XNA platforms for developers. Since then, it's evolved, over time, into ... Windows. Windows Phone 8.1 shares a same basic set of APIs with Windows 8.1 with Update 1, and developers can write universal apps that target both platforms and, soon, Xbox One as well. That's a much better developer story than before, and one that doesn't just leverage the languages (C#/C++/Visual Basic) that developers know, it also provides a single target.
Targeting the volume/low-cost part of the market. This isn't another thing that's both hard to remember and hard to believe: When Windows Phone launched in 2010, it targeted the very high end of the market, just like iPhone. This achieved two non-goals: Few partners and few customers. Today, and thanks in part to Nokia's strategy of releasing phones to every possible part of the market, Microsoft has learned that its place in the smart phone market is the same as it is in the PC market: The low-end, volume part of the market. And the best-selling Windows Phone handset of all time—the Lumia 520—retailed for about $69 (with no contract) in the US for the better part of the past year.
Now it's free. We'll never know what licensing fee Microsoft used to charge for Windows Phone, but was estimated to fall in the $25 to $35 range before early 2014. Today, licensing is both simple and affordable: Windows Phone OS is free to license. And since announcing that change just five months ago, Microsoft has seen 14 new OEM partners come on board. There were only a handful of companies making Windows Phone handsets, and one of them—Nokia—controlled 90 percent of the market.
The hardware is more diverse. When Windows Phone was first released, device makers had a hard time differentiating because Microsoft pushed stringent hardware requirements that made handsets nearly identical aside from surface styling cues. Today, device makers have much more choice thanks to repeated changed to the rules that govern which hardware features they must include, and which are optional. The result, combined with the previous point, is more and more different form factors from more and more device makers.
Apps matter. This one is tricky and has been obvious since day one, but when it comes to real people choosing a mobile platform to really use, it's the availability of apps that matters most. Today, Windows Phone has the third largest mobile app market on earth, though it's still well below the Android and iOS market leaders. But what's changed is that this year has seen a steady release of A-list titles on the platform. It will take a long time to change users' perceptions, but that's a big deal.
But the biggest changes, perhaps, are coming in the very near future.
Though Microsoft just shipped Windows Phone 8.1, it is getting ready to ship the first update for that OS, the cannily named Windows Phone 8.1 Update (which I'll more accurately call Update 1). I described this update in Microsoft Leaks Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 Details, but the important high-level bit for this discussion is that Update 1 supports new devices sizes—up to 7-inch screens—and new resolutions, making Windows Phone more suitable for devices that can only be described as tablets.
And then there's Office Touch for Windows. You may be familiar with Office for iPad. Office Touch for Windows is a superset of that product, and it's going to be a set of universal apps, so it will run on Windows 8.1, Windows RT 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 when it ships in the coming months. So while iPhone and Android are stuck with Office Mobile, Windows Phone will soon catapult past them with the same full-featured Office Touch that Windows tablet and PC users will get.
Office Touch for Windows combined with a 6-to-7 inch Windows Phone 8.1 phablet/tablet could be a game changer, in that it will be single device that, for many people, really could do it all. And since it will be fully configurable and managed via Microsoft's MDM solutions, such devices will be enterprise ready as well. I feel like Windows Phone 8.1 today is already in a great place for businesses. But these coming changes could really put the platform over the top with the customer segment that matters most to Microsoft. It was a long time coming.