Is Microsoft strangling Windows phone to prepare for the concept of Surface 'phone'?

The question: "is Microsoft strangling Windows phone to prepare for the concept of a Surface phone?" That's an inherently very different question. I understand the well-rehearsed idea that Microsoft is killing Windows phone. The company's dismal performance in mobile, it's apparent apathy to marketing a first-party smartphone and it's painful silence on the matter could all be legitimately interpreted as conclusive evidence that Microsoft is indeed killing its mobile strategy.

For many Microsoft watchers, the company's collective failures in mobile from Pocket PC, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone and culminating with Windows 10 Mobile, are evidence that Microsoft has finally given up on the idea of Windows-on-mobile. I disagree.

I do, however, believe that to ensure the survival of Windows-on-mobile Microsoft has made difficult decisions that are painful for Windows-based phone loyalists, both inside and outside of Redmond, to endure. It seems Microsoft has deemed that the survival of Windows-on-mobile requires the pruning of the withering branches that are Windows phones.

The Windows-on-mobile vision lives on

To ensure the health of a tree, diseased branches are removed to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of the tree. This pruning ultimately strengthens the roots, and if it's a fruit-bearing tree, it encourages the eventual production of fruit.

Contrary to exaggerated claims, the current state of Windows phone isn't that of a dead platform. I understand some who make the "claim" intentionally use hyperbole to express its dire condition. Windows Phone 8.1's no longer supported and Windows 10 Mobile's on just 20 percent of devices. Still, Microsoft provides limited support via OS updates. Sporadic developer support, real but insufficient OEM support from the likes of HP and Alcatel, and a passionate though diminishing fan base are also present. Together these variables suggest Windows phone is still alive, but like a branch in need of pruning, it is diseased.

Due to rejection by consumers, insufficient developer support, inconsistent commitment from Microsoft and an inescapable negative reputation, Windows phone is likely unsalvageable. Microsoft knows this. To be clear; I'm referring to a smartphone running Windows 10 Mobile, nothing more.

Every smartphone is a mobile device, but every mobile device is not a smartphone.

The idea of Windows on a smartphone is perceived by most as a "diseased concept" that I believe would be rejected no matter how Microsoft might present it. The iPhone and Android phones have defined what a smartphone is and sadly, due to external forces and missteps by Microsoft, a smartphone running any version of Windows does not fit that definition.

Still, though every smartphone is a mobile device, every mobile device is not a smartphone. It is upon this truth that I believe Microsoft is resting its mobile strategy. But to move forward with its Windows-on-mobile vision, it must first remove the diseased Windows smartphones from the market and the idea of Windows on a smartphone from public consciousness.

Smartphone woes

Microsoft's vision of bringing the power of Windows to a pocketable device is decades-old. Long before iPhone or Android phones, Microsoft's mobile OS was a player in the enterprise smartphone space.

To Microsoft's dismay, the historically ignored consumer demographic passionately embraced Apple's offering and Android smartphones that followed. Microsoft's response after its iPhone-inspired awakening from years of lethargy was wracked with desperation.

Microsoft's Live Tile-based, touch-friendly Windows Phone 7 UI was a new and unique manifestation but still a continuation of its Windows-on-mobile vision. Windows Phone 8 and Windows 10 Mobile followed with many improvements and sacrifices. But as was the case with other smartphone iterations of Microsoft's Windows-on-mobile vision, they all ended in failure.

Every mobile device is not a smartphone

Microsoft is currently in a quandary with respect to bringing the next iteration of its mobile vision to market. I believe the company is planning a Continuum-enabled Windows on ARM ultramobile PC with the context-conforming CShell and telephony. This will be a mobile device, but it will not be a smartphone.

Microsoft's vision of a mobile device.

Microsoft's vision of a mobile device.

For it to be accepted by the market, any remnants of Microsoft's failed smartphone attempts must be eradicated from consumer's minds to whatever extent possible.

Additionally, I believe Microsoft has deemed physical reminders of that failed platform must be purged as well. Thus its full retreat from the market and little effort to solicit OEM support. This strangling of Windows phone while supporting its Widows-on-mobile vision puts Microsoft in a multi-faceted quandary.

Problems with pruning

Though the idea of Windows phone is quickly fading from consumer's collective consciousness, which Microsoft wants, it is also fading from developer's collective consciousness, which Microsoft doesn't want.

Due to low market share and other factors, developers never supported Windows phone in any meaningful way. Now, they're not only ignoring Windows phone as they've historically done but are accepting iOS and Android as the only platforms that matter. Still, Microsoft needs developer support for Windows 10 now and its Windows on ARM ultimate mobile device later.

Microsoft not supporting Windows phone isn't an abandonment of Windows-on-mobile.

Microsoft's public dance of dropping carefully curated assurances of a commitment to mobile in reference to a potential Surface 'phone' (ultimate mobile device) while intentionally choking Windows phone by withdrawing all but the most basic support sends a confusing message.

Like many bloggers, consumers and Microsoft watchers, developers mistakenly see Microsoft's lack of passionate support for the current iteration of Windows phone as Microsoft's abandonment of its Windows-on-mobile vision. Consequently, many are abandoning support for Windows and not looking back which is disastrous for Microsoft's mobile future regardless of what non-smartphone device it launches.

We're part of the problem

The other part of Microsoft's pruning process problem is you, and when I say you, I mean us. Passionate Windows phone fans who don't want Windows phone to die.

Now, this is where language becomes important, and a bit confusing. When most people say Windows phone is dead they mean the totality of Microsoft's mobile strategy or Windows-on-mobile (sometimes less accurately called Windows on 'phone' when referencing a future non-phone device).

They're not looking beyond the current iteration of Windows-on-mobile and are seeing Windows 10 Mobile as the totality of Microsoft's mobile strategy. This is wrong. Just as Pocket PC, Windows Mobile, and Windows Phone "died" but Windows-on-mobile lived on as subsequent iterations of the mobile OS, Windows 10 Mobile will likely do the same and be succeeded by Windows 10 on ARM with CShell.

As fans, however, we love, use, talk about and refuse to give up our Windows phones. Some of us still actively try to convert others (I gave that up over a year ago). Naturally, this passionate support and evangelizing of Windows phones work to counter Microsoft's process of pruning actual phones and the idea of Windows phones from the market and our collective consciousness. Microsoft doesn't want consumers thinking about the fiasco that has been Windows on smartphones when it introduces its ultimate (Windows) mobile device.

A new way of thinking

Microsoft's hardware goals are to introduce new categories of devices that help consumers work more efficiently and which conform to a user's context.

Microsoft's still unrealized mobile vision has been clearly communicated over the years. The company wants to offer a pocketable device that can make calls, be a PC via Continuum and as a result of OneCore benefit from the breadth of features available to Windows 10. Pen support via system-wide inking, mixed reality and more are examples of features this ultimate mobile device, that can potentially be all devices, may bring to the table.

Microsoft faces the challenge of proudly communicating that the range of benefits that this device will bring to the masses are features of Windows 10, while conveying that the device itself is not a phone. It's clear from previous reader's comments that that distinction will be difficult to communicate.

I'm certain that hardware design will be critical to helping to make the visual distinction as clear as possible. Unique and new ways of interaction may be another. Intentional market positioning in the PC space as an ultramobile PC and subsequent marketing as such may further distinguish this device from smartphones.

However Microsoft brings its ultimate mobile device to the table, it will do so in the wake of strangling the life out of Windows phones right before our watchful eyes. It's not pretty, but if the next phase of Windows-on-mobile is to have any chance at acceptance the world needs to forget about Windows on smartphones in order for the concept of an ultimate mobile device to take root.

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Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

475 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks!!! As I shared in Windows phone isn't dead - and may never die: https://www.windowscentral.com/windows-phone-still-isnt-dead-heres-why Microsoft's mobile strategy will likely continue with full Windows on ARM and Windows 10 Mobile will likely join its Windows mobile OS predecessors in in death. I think MS is trying to purge the negativity of Windows on smartphones from the collective conciousness to give its full Windows on ARM ultimate mo Ile device, or ultramobile PC the best chance at success. So what are your thoughts...LET'S TALK!!!
  • You are probably right, but the bigger question is, will anyone care?
  • Europeans do, it's it's vexing that a good product is being dumped because of poor user takeup in the US.
  • Lol, not anymore but we had over 10% marketshare tho👍 then Ms screwed it big time😂
  • They only "screwed it" because they got wind of something better in development and realized their current phone's architecture would never be compatible with it.  Happens all the time.  
  • That's not true. They didn't have to dump everybody off the platform! They could have actually kept up their older platform until people traded up. That's how you succeed in business--customer service. Apparently Microsoft can't walk and chew gum at the same time.
  • I agree. That's exactly what Ballmer was trying to tell Nadela, but he didn't listen. Let's see
  • True, but that would mean that they would need to have a viable path of migration. Microsoft doesn't have a good way to incentivize people of a very good sub $200 Windows phone to one that's over $500. Remember that their most popular phone, especially a road, was the 520. When it was determined that it couldn't run Windows 10, several incarnations were built until they came up with the 640. Neither are considered powerhouses, but I'll be damned if my 640 does 90% of what I need to do. The other 10% is a bunch of social media BS that OTHER people want me to do. I can't fathom paying 5x more for a phone to do 10% more work. But therein lies the rub that Microsoft has to contend with if they want a good section of their loyalist to jump to the next incarnation of portable devices. I say this as someone who has had I Microsoft product in my pocket since the Pocket PC days.
  • This true. There’s so many examples of CEOs making this mistake all the time though. Famously Sega of Japan killed the Sega Genesis less than a year after the Sega Saturn launched which royally screwed them out of millions of necesarry cash flow.   some people are just short sighted than others.
  • Was at 20% in Italy and France !!!!! Satya is a moron, that s the reason....
  • The sad thing is that MS doesn't care so much about Europe even tho we have all this hope and love for this company. I wonder when the time will come to feel some love back from MS.
  • Windows mobile 10 didn't have good sales anywhere. Windows Mobile 8.1 on the other hand was really starting to pickup back before Microsoft bought Nokia. They had higher market share then the iPhone in some European markets.
  • I don't think we care that much either.
  • Yes. Microsoft loyalists.
  • Of course people will care - IF Microsoft can deliver a device that looks and acts like the devices in Westworld and are not too painfully "half-baked" windows 10.
  • I will..lol