Hey, Microsoft: It’s Time to Pull Phone into Windows

If you could go back in time 15 years and tell your younger self that you would one day be able to run Windows NT in an innovative, interconnected, and thoroughly integrated handheld device that could make phone calls and was more powerful than the workstation you were then using, I mean, wow. That younger self would have done cartwheels.

Explain to me then why no one uses Windows Phone.

Granted, when Microsoft announced Windows Phone three years ago this month, it wasn’t based on NT. The first two versions, Windows Phone 7 and 7.5, were based on the decidedly uninteresting Windows CE codebase instead, allowing the firm to get to market quickly. But the one thing Microsoft did get right was to design the system in a way that put its users at the center of the experience and end the reliance on siloed, disconnected apps. Windows Phone was (and still is) a breath of fresh air, different from other smartphone platforms by design, not just to be different, but to be better.

And today, with Windows Phone 8, it is based on NT. Which is to say mainstream Windows. Which is to say it’s basically another SKU, or product version, of Windows 8. So people who know and understand the NT legacy should be falling all over themselves to adopt this magical smartphone platform. But they’re not. You’re not. No one is. Windows Phone has done nothing but squander its user experience advantages over the past few years, with the system never achieving more than 3 percent market share.

And I think I know why.

The problem is that Windows Phone 8 isn’t Windows. It’s sort-of Windows. It’s something that looks like the part of Windows 8 that no one actually seems to like, the misunderstood Metro environment. But it doesn’t run Windows 8/RT Metro apps, let alone desktop applications and utilities, even though it can and should. Instead, it runs toy apps, and silly games, and its user experience wins are ignored because no one can see past those damned tiles. (Which by the way, I happen to like. Whatever.)

Imagine if it wasn’t like that.

Last week on the Windows Weekly podcast, I wondered aloud, not for the first time, that it seems inevitable that Microsoft would one day combine desktop/tablet Windows with Windows Phone since they share the same code base, and because modern cell phones, with their multi-core processors, HD screens, and gigabytes of RAM and storage are, for all intents and purposes, PCs. Microsoft is so busy trying to meld PC and tablet today, one has to think that melding PC and phone is the next obvious step.

Coincidentally, my Windows Weekly cohost Mary Jo Foley published a post called “Microsoft working to unify further its Windows and Windows Phone platforms” less than 24 hours later. And this post describes Microsoft’s efforts to “bring much of the [Windows 8 Metro APIs] to the Phone . . . and [create] a [single] platform built for desktops and tablets [and] the phone form factor.”

Boy, did Microsoft blow it.

The company could have—should have—done this for Windows Phone 8. Phone apps could have simply been portrait-oriented Metro apps, and this platform should have supported 1366 x 768, the “standard” Windows 8 resolution. App writers could have created apps that ran on phones, tablets, and PCs, using a single executable (where, when run on Phone, the apps would just run in portrait mode). A Windows Phone handset would just be a really small PC. With a phone app.

OK, so Microsoft didn’t do this. But the company still can. And the quickest way to get there, unfortunately, is jettisoning much of the team that is today responsible for Windows Phone—which, if you’ve been following the platform, is more finger-pointing than praise—and replacing them with the team that makes desktop Windows. I have many friends on Windows Phone, so I don’t suggest this lightly. They’re good guys. But they’ve driven this thing into the ground. It’s time to let the varsity team have a go at it.

(I don’t want this to turn into a screed against the Windows Phone team. But the fact remains that over three years, this team has consistently overpromised and under-delivered, with the most recent examples being the bungled and delayed release of Windows Phone 7.8 and the complete lack of clarity on a promised enthusiast program that never materialized. Say what you will about Sinofsky’s Windows client group over the past several years, but they did do one thing right. They consistently under-promised and then over-delivered.)

Imagine a phone that could run real Remote Desktop. Real PowerShell. Anything that can run on your desktop PC. Imagine “phablet” form factors, similar to today’s Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which could dock to a desktop setup and utilize an external display, keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals. Imagine a single set of APIs that work everywhere. Imagine that Phone isn’t a whole separate platform, but an app. An app that runs on Windows. Real Windows.

The Windows Phone team could never make that happen. But the Windows client team? You betcha.

Make it happen, Microsoft. It’s time to take the phone seriously.

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