In the world of smartphones, you’ve got two options:
There could have been a third choice. Microsoft has a mobile operating system called Windows Phone. Version 7, released in 2010, wildly rethought what a mobile OS could be. It combined app icons and widgets into useful preview links called “live tiles.”
With live tiles, Microsoft offered a truly innovative way for users to obtain useful information without leaving the home screen. And… that was the end of the innovation. Aside from the Metro UI, so-called because it was inspired by metropolitan transit system typography and design language, Windows Phone didn’t offer any functionality to make it stand out from its better-established competitors.
Metro (renamed “Modern” in 2012) introduced a striking, unified, and flat design that would later be borrowed heavily by Microsoft’s two major rivals in the phone space, the makers of iOS and Android: Apple and Google, respectively.
However, it lacked features. At launch, it lacked:
- Full multitasking
- Cut, copy, paste
- Microsoft’s own BitLocker encryption
- USB disk mounting*
- Universal search
- Bluetooth file transfer
*users were required to install Zune, Microsoft’s now-defunct media management tool, mirroring Apple’s policy on iTunes and iOS devices that continues to this day
And this put Windows Phone in the same second-class tier as BlackBerry, a legacy mobile platform that helped bridge the gap between feature phones of the early and mid-2000s and smartphones as we know them today. Microsoft would add many of these missing features in Windows Phone 7’s successor, Windows Phone 8, but the damage had been done. It had a brief chance to capture the imaginations of first-time smartphone buyers, but failed to because of the aforementioned lack of features as well as another oversight.
Windows Phone has no exclusive features. The mobile version of its ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications is available on Android and iOS. And the iOS version is particularly robust. This same version can now be installed through Windows Store for x86 and will come preinstalled in Windows Phone 10, but was made available after it was released to owners of Apple products.
With Windows Phone, Microsoft had a genuine chance at wrestling market share from Apple and Google, but ultimately dropped the ball. One killer feature in particular, one that is offered only as workarounds by third parties on Android and was only added to iOS in late 2014 is Continuity. Hand-offs between mobile and desktop would have differentiated Windows Phone in a major way; just think of Microsoft’s high install base. Microsoft owns the desktop. Reporting varies, but Redmond can claim well over 85% of desktop and laptop machines. Compare that to their less than 5% market share in the mobile space and it becomes apparent that Microsoft missed out big time.
Less than half of iPhone users also own a Mac. iOS device sales eclipse those of Macintosh devices and only owners of Apple devices from both categories can start something on their iPhone and resume work on their Mac or vice-versa.
Looking at the Android side of things, most of those users have a Windows laptop. Android’s market share on phones is quite comparable to Windows on traditional computers, more than four out of five devices. This is what Microsoft should have gunned for. By infusing a seamless workflow into the backbone of Windows Phone, coupled with tight Office integration and through further leveraging of Windows Phone’s aggressive pricing strategy, Google customers could have been seduced into Microsoft’s ecosystem.
"Windows Phone’s problem is a fundamental lack of flow."
The missing piece was and still is interoperability between Windows Phone and Windows proper. To this day, something as basic in today's world (where users own several connected devices) as reading an SMS sent to a Windows Phone on Windows for the desktop isn’t supported. The absence of this simple task is a microcosm of what lies at the heart of Windows Phone’s problem, the fundamental lack of flow that Google haphazardly works around through its web apps.
Regardless of market share, Apple is the company to beat in mobile due to its tight integration, high profit margins, and flourishing App Store. Microsoft had to beat Apple at it own game with a first-class phone experience that communicates with Windows on the desktop. By so doing, Microsoft would have strong-armed away a portion of the fragmented Android market. And then third-party app development would have picked up and created a snowball effect, resulting in a viable third platform choice.
But Microsoft blew it. And so we only have two choices: