Why Microsoft needs to address Windows Mobile — and phones — at Build 2017

In 2017, the commercial status of Windows Mobile is sealed and arguably has been ever since the Nokia "McLaren" was canceled in mid-2014. With Microsoft undoing the Nokia mobile acquisition and ending phone hardware with the Lumia 650 there has been little uptake by other manufacturers to fill that gap.

Nadella needs to say at Build next month exactly what Microsoft's plans (if any) are for its mobile ambitions. And to get around any cutesy wordplay with the term "mobile," I don't mean tablets and laptops, but phones.

Give users closure or hope, not mixed messages

The current situation is particularly troublesome. Were Microsoft to pull the plug on Windows 10 Mobile and again specifically smartphones, the industry would roll with it. After all, mainstream tech media has been calling for the demise of Windows phone for years, and even dedicated fans are giving up on the platform.

In other words, were Microsoft to quit Windows phones, no one would be shocked nor surprised. At the very least, however, fans of Microsoft and those in tech who wish for a "third way" would have a definitive answer.

Right now, Microsoft is sending mixed messages. With no new Lumias and noble, but limited, attempts from Alcatel and HP, there is just no compelling Windows phone hardware. Normally, that is enough to call a platform dead, yet Microsoft is continually updating and yes, improving Windows 10 Mobile.

In fact, I can easily make a compelling case that the Windows 10 Mobile Creators Update is significantly better, faster, more reliable, and more fun to use than it was just six months ago. It is obvious Microsoft is improving things. But to what end?

Adherents to Windows 10 Mobile accepted this Schrödinger-like duality for the last few years, expecting the proverbial shoe to drop with a "Surface phone." That has not happened, and in October it will be two years since the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL were announced, which were themselves disappointments.

Where is all of this going, Microsoft?

Microsoft did not even see it fit to upgrade Windows Phone 8.1 devices without making the user go out of their way, and now we recently learned that the Creators Update will siphon off even more devices.

Rumors are picking up that after the "Redstone 3" update due in October, Microsoft will discontinue all development on Windows 10 Mobile. While no one would exactly be surprised, the question is why even bother with the dance with consumers? Is it, as some have speculated, to fulfill the two-year support for the last Lumias?

Forget consumers, what about developers?

Developers are the core of Microsoft, stretching back famously to the days of Steve Ballmer, but even they are now left scratching their heads. Developers are abandoning Windows phones more than ever, dropping support for apps and not replacing it with modern Universal Windows Platform (UWP) versions as Microsoft had anticipated.

With less than one percent of the smartphone market share, no one even blames a company like Spotify for dropping Windows phone. That's to say nothing of indie developers who literally cannot afford to make apps for an OS that they see as being dead.

Once these developers are gone, it will be nearly impossible to bring them back. Android and iOS have cemented their positions in the mobile space. Android has the most market, but iOS pays developers the most. Windows 10 Mobile, and even Windows 10? Eh, not so much.

Unless UWP becomes so platform neutral that developers have zero coding to do for Windows 10 Mobile, there is little hope for Microsoft ever to reenter the smartphone space. Even UWP, while virtuous, is hitting some walls with PC users who still prefer to use a web browser.

Mobile is critical for future computing

One of the biggest and yet non-surprising stories of 2017 is Android displacing Windows as the world's most dominant OS. Smartphones are ubiquitous, having plateaued as a consumer category in 2014. Apple and Google's partners are basically in maintenance mode now, releasing new hardware and OS iterations on the clock every year.

Microsoft has completely missed this revolution.

It's not for lack of trying but rather because of misstep after misstep. There is nothing quite like the story of how Microsoft got smartphones wrong starting back in 2007. It's up there with losing web browser share to Google Chrome. The tech world stands in awe of how incompetently Microsoft has handled the smartphone category. All of this despite having an OS that was fascinating, unique, and for a while fun.

Microsoft is betting on a 'paradigm shift' for Windows 10 Mobile to be competitive

Without a card in the smartphone game Microsoft's Windows 10 seems somewhat doomed to business laptops and PCs. Sure, HoloLens and Xbox are very exciting platforms for Windows 10 and UWP to expand to, but both are minuscule and unproven compared to smartphones.

Remember how Microsoft chest thumped about hitting one billion Windows 10 devices two years ago? The company has not even hit 500 million, and that is for one reason: smartphones. With that category completely collapsing, Windows 10 can only go so far.

Don't tell me that smartphones are not essential to the Windows 10 and UWP strategy. They're crucial.

'There is a plan for mobile'

Some recent – and informed – reports lead some of us covering Microsoft to believe its strategy is to fold Windows 10 Mobile completely into Windows 10 proper. Technologies such as OneCore, CSHELL, Win32 emulation, and getting Windows 10 run on ARM processors with e-SIM support make that play somewhat obvious.

In that sense, there is some clever wordplay I'm hearing. "Yeah, Windows 10 Mobile is dead, but Windows 10 on MOBILE is not."

If this is the case, Microsoft needs to spell this out at the Build developer conference next month.

If Microsoft sees a revolution in mobile computing that is unlike anything on the market today – akin to how HoloLens and holographic computing gave the industry a jolt in January 2015 – then tell us.

At the very least tease it and tell us how you are going to get there.

I keep hearing from people off the record at Microsoft saying, "there is a plan for mobile." I want to believe that is the case, but with the core audience and developers leaving, and the lack of confidence from the media no one thinks Microsoft can do this Herculean task.

MS logo

MS logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Apple caught a ton of flak for its lackluster new MacBook Pros and apparent abandonment of Mac Pro hardware. Recently, the company had an honest mea culpa moment with the media trying to get back on track. Nearly everyone gave them a slow golf clap for at least owning up to past mistakes.

Microsoft needs to do that now for mobile and smartphones. If Microsoft is done with smartphones, then so be it. Tell the world, so everyone can move on and grab the latest Android or iPhone. (They already are anyway.) Just don't string your core audience around with continued OS updates and an unclear goal.

Microsoft has shown signs of greatness during the last few years, but smartphones are not one of them. That needs to change next month.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central. He is also the head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007, when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and watches. He has been reviewing laptops since 2015 and is particularly fond of 2-in-1 convertibles, ARM processors, new form factors, and thin-and-light PCs. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.