Is Time Running Out for Windows Phone?

Despite what will no doubt be some strong gains by Nokia this quarter, the prognosis for Windows Phone isn't good: Microsoft’s mobile platform controls just 2 percent of the market for smartphones today, and even a best-case scenario won’t see it crack the 5 percent plateau before Windows Phone 8 ships late this year.

Is time running out for Windows Phone?

Even the Windows Phone 8 release comes with some doubts. It’s based on Windows 8, and is in fact simply another version of Windows 8, which sounds good until you realize that in making this transition, Microsoft might be tossing aside some of the things that make Windows Phone so special today. I’m referring primarily to the developer environment, which today is based on an excellent and simple Silverlight toolset.

As for Windows Phone 8, you can expect that platform to sport WinRT-based APIs similar to (but different from) those used on the desktop and server versions of Windows 8. And I write "similar" there for a reason: They aren’t actually the same. You won't be able to create apps that run across all three platforms. Instead, Windows Phone 8 will be similar, but not identical, from a software development perspective.

This isn’t picking nits. Any developer will tell you that systems that are very similar but not identical are in some ways more difficult to wrap one’s mind around than are two completely different systems. The key will be whether well-written apps will be able to re-use lots of code between Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, and Windows Phone 8. We’ll see.

I’m as concerned, in a way, with what is very clearly yet another do-over. Yes, Windows Phone 8 will retain the Windows Phone name, and yes, it will run “legacy” Windows Phone 7.x apps, those apps that were written in Silverlight or the game-centric XNA APIs. But with Silverlight and XNA both silently cancelled deep within Microsoft’s ever-reimagined corporate hulk, the move to a variation of WinRT means that Windows Phone is starting over again. That mean more work for developers who, let’s face it, haven’t really had much incentive to adopt this platform in the first place.

It also means that the underlying platform, now a Windows Phone-specific version of WinRT, is less mature. The Windows Phone APIs were certainly lacking when the platform debuted in 2010, but the undermanned and underappreciated team responsible for it has done a wonderful job of updating the platform and the APIs over the past two years, all while providing a steady supply of excellent documentation. Say what you will about Windows Phone, but the developer environment was always first-rate. And now it’s changing.

This makes me nervous. An ex-developer with a dozen software development books to my credit, I immediately grokked how Windows Phone works from a developer perspective. But my admittedly few forays into WinRT (using the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and Visual Studio 11 pre-release tools) have been decidedly less successful. I suspect this system is going to be a lot less approachable to enthusiast and student developers than is Windows Phone today, although perhaps going in fresh would be an advantage. I’ll keep plugging away at it. But I don’t like what I see.

Of course, the move to yet another platform goes well beyond developers, and there's good and bad news for users and those IT pros who need to support Windows Phone in the real world. For users, it’s bad: I’ve been told that absolutely no current Windows Phone handsets will be upgraded to Windows Phone 8, although some still hold out for a fantasy future in which Microsoft, the hardware makers, and the ever-reluctant wireless carriers miraculously toss logic to the wind and support some tiny number of upgraders with at least a subset of Windows Phone 8 functionality.

Businesses that have thus far ignored Windows Phone should cheer the move to a Windows 8-based platform. This means that some key deployment blockers -- such as support for device-based and removable storage-based encryption -- are finally coming to the platform. And because it’s based on Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 will provide the same level of management support as Windows RT, at least.

We’ll know more about Windows Phone 8 in June, when Microsoft will hold a Windows Phone developer event and then TechEd. But it’s hard to imagine a short-term future in which Windows Phone 8 really takes off in the market place, given what’s happened so far and what I know already about Windows Phone 8. So what’s next?

Right now, Apple’s iPhone and an ever-growing number of Android handsets control the smartphone market while the one hold-out, RIM BlackBerry, seems like it’s on the way down. From the perspective of a PC user, Android seems to bear the most resemblance to the PC market, with its variety of device types and form factors and multitudes of choices. I don’t personally like Android, and I can’t even really put my finger on why, but I suspect it will be embraced by IT while many users will prefer Apple’s devices.

Meanwhile, those who've used Windows Phone know that Microsoft created something special here. But with so much uncertainty around the platform, it’s no wonder that even the software giant’s biggest fans are starting to wonder whether Windows Phone has a future. I’d like to see it succeed. Heck, it deserves to succeed. But the question remains.

Is time running out for Windows Phone?

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