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Windows 10 Mobile is NOT dead — but its future is far from guaranteed

Microsoft's recent release to the Windows Insider Program on Friday, April 14, caused a bit of a stir. Microsoft did something new with the latest Fast Ring release: It broke the Mobile development branch from the main "Redstone 3" one into a new one dubbed Feature2.

What does it all mean, and is Windows 10 Mobile being phased out? Things get a bit complicated, but here is what we know so far.

Different OS build numbers

Windows 10 Mobile will no longer be receiving new builds from the same development branch that PCs do. More notably, it will no longer receive builds synced with PCs either. This change is the first time that the code for Mobile has been broken off from the main line, to our knowledge.

Here is how Microsoft framed the change on the Insider blog:

This is a result of more work we're doing to converge code into OneCore – the heart of Windows across PC, tablet, phone, IoT, HoloLens, Xbox and more as we continue to develop new improvements for Windows 10 Mobile and our enterprise customers.

The reasoning, however, created more questions than answers. The most obvious inquiry is how can the company be converging code into OneCore when the code for the phone OS is sidelined?

Complicating matters, one of our writers, Dennis Bednarz, went off on Twitter in a series of missives that were quickly picked up by the community:

Alright, Windows 10 Mobile has been wiped from rs_prerelease. This means it's really 'dead' this time. It got removed from the Windows tree.

Bednarz was citing an unnamed source for the information, and some the information was inconsequential to the claim, which is his own and not that of Windows Central.

See more

Is Windows 10 Mobile development really dead?

Our Senior Editor Zac Bowden and I spoke with many sources familiar with the development of Windows 10 for clarification. Interestingly, not one person we spoke to would definitively say or even imply that Windows 10 Mobile is being phased out and development is being discontinued. That's not to say that some big push isn't about to happen for what should be obvious reasons in 2017.

At least one source familiar with the matter claimed that the so-called Feature2 branch is just a temporary move and it will be folded back into "rs_prerelease" or "Redstone 3" later. The same person also claimed that people were "reading too much" into the change and that this is just related to some engineering shifts in the OS, possibly the "code refactoring" referred to in the Microsoft blog post, for example.

Windows 10 Redstone 3: Everything we know so far)

Nonetheless, there is other information that our sources have told us that cast some doubt on this information. Internal test groups, "self-host" groups, have reportedly not had any compiled Mobile builds in the other internal branches during the last two weeks, right around the same time that the "Feature2" branch was created. That doesn't necessarily mean Windows 10 Mobile is no longer being compiled in those other branches, but rather that Microsoft is no longer "flighting" (distributing) Windows 10 Mobile internally outside of the Feature2 branch.

That suggests that any major development work on Redstone 3 for Mobile has been halted, at least temporarily.

Combined with Redstone 3, CShell was supposed to be the underpinning for the advanced Continuum features demonstrated in a Microsoft video back in September. At this time, it's unclear if Microsoft still has plans to deliver these improvements along with CShell in the fall for Windows 10 Mobile. CShell for desktop and other platforms remains unaffected, however.

What is Feature2?

Feature2 is a newly-created branch designed specifically for Windows 10 Mobile builds post-Creators Update, as part of which Microsoft plans to issue Insider Preview builds to the remaining supported Windows phones on the market. This approach means consumers will continue to receive mobile builds as Insiders as they did for the last two years.

The next logical question is whether these Feature2 builds are a temporary measure or permanent one. The answer is unclear as of now.

Microsoft hasn't been forthcoming on the subject, which is not much of a surprise considering its track record. If it's a temporary measure, there's nothing to be worried about, and Mobile will eventually sync back up with PC.

But if it's a permanent thing, things get a little trickier.

If it is a perpetual measure, then the Feature2 branch is looking a lot like a maintenance branch ("sustained engineering," in developer lingo) designed to cater to the remaining users who still want Windows in their pockets.

Those using supported Windows phones on the Insider Preview will continue receiving fixes and updates from Microsoft throughout this year, and Microsoft says you may even see a new feature or two.

If, however, as some of our sources say this is just a temporary change until Phone Insiders are folded back into rs_prerelease and Redstone 3 with PCs, tablets, IoT, HoloLens and Xbox, there is a lot less drama.

Does it even matter?

Windows 10 Mobile is not going to be a consumer OS that competes with iOS and Android anytime soon. The OS still needs some defining features, the app situation is as dire as ever, and new hardware is nonexistent.

At most, Feature2 isn't the immediate "death" of Windows 10 Mobile. If Microsoft had just killed Windows 10 Mobile, why not just leave Mobile Insiders at Redstone 2 with the Creators Update? Microsoft doesn't have to continue flighting new Insider builds for Mobile users, but it is doing so regardless.

Feature2 feels more like a safety branch for Phone fans, where Microsoft can continue providing the Insider experience, with new builds, fixes and maybe even a feature or two just like normal. It's not what everyone wants to hear, but considering the current position Windows 10 Mobile is in, expecting Microsoft to put Windows 10 Mobile first, before everything else, is a little far-fetched.

Microsoft is clear that Windows 10, ARM and cellular are critical to its plans but the current concept of a phone may not be the future.

Why Microsoft keeps working on Windows 10 Mobile: ARM, cellular, and the next big thing

This discussion also gets "squishy" when we bring up Windows 10 on ARM, which was announced by Microsoft in December. That move is initially focused on so-called "cellular PCs" and not phones per se, but Microsoft is blurring the lines between a desktop and mobile OS going forward.

A de-emphasis on traditional phones while building up cellular PCs for Holiday 2017 could be the new focus.

We have also heard that code from Mobile is now in Windows 10 proper and even Xbox itself. Perhaps Microsoft is finished with Mobile as a branch, but it has what it needs of the code for other device categories.

HP Elite x3 with Lapdock

HP Elite x3 with Lapdock (Image credit: Windows Central)

Moreover, as hardware improves, PCs, laptops and mobile devices are also merging. Mobile processors like Qualcomm's Snapdragon system on a chip (SoC) are going to power laptops, for example.

With Windows 10 on ARM, we could also see some new hardware categories created and not just thin laptops.

No one (who's talking) knows

A case can be made that there is a lot of internal confusion and disarray when it comes to Microsoft's mobile strategy. Many sources who are normally comfortable discussing such internal engineering plans for mobile are themselves confused or unaware of the long term goal.

Of course, none of that precludes that there is a strategy in place, but it appears to lie with those in the upper echelons of the company.

Regardless, Microsoft should shed some light on the matter next month at Build.

Our final analysis

For now, our advice is to sit tight. The good news is no one is telling us – even off-the-record – that development of the phone version of Windows 10 is finished. The majority of our sources are also not hearing about any "sunsetting" of Windows 10 Mobile or even sustained engineering either, lending credence to the idea that this change in builds is indeed temporary.

This Feature2 branch could literally be a temporary measure during the initial stages of Redstone 3's development where the mobile code needs to be separated.

'Windows 10 for ARM-based Phone devices' is another new name change.

'Windows 10 for ARM-based Phone devices' is another new name change.

The situation is made even more confusing by Microsoft's ambitions for Windows 10 with the merging of PC and mobile. It should be evident that Windows as we know it is increasingly going to span more hardware categories, and the talk of a "mobile OS" misses these fundamental shifts.

Windows 10 on ARM, CShell, OneCore, and Windows 10 Cloud all make defining what makes a PC versus a laptop versus mobile complicated.

Such category terms may no longer apply to the future Microsoft is building. That's both exciting and terrifying. Windows phone may be the first casualty, but that's not necessarily the end of the company's mobile strategy.

If history is to repeat itself, the death of Windows 10 Mobile will never be announced by Microsoft, even if it is dead. Much like Windows RT, its death will simply be implied when Microsoft stops releasing feature updates. Microsoft didn't publicly state that it was killing Windows RT, and it'll maintain that same strategy for Windows 10 Mobile.

Interestingly, Windows RT appears to be making a comeback albeit "new and improved" under the Windows 10 Cloud banner. Perhaps the same will also happen to mobile.

Zac Bowden
Senior Editor

Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows 10 on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter: @zacbowden.

  • There are quite a few explanations for this shift with release, but so far, nothing has convinced me that this is a dramatic "end of life" situation for Mobile - at least in the formal, OS development sense. Indeed, one source gave this explanation, which is certainly plausible:
    "It could also just be a prioritization issue. Less Mobile users, less testers, less reason to try and push builds simultaneously. Focus resources on fast, more stable, iterative updates to the desktop build and have a slower mobile branching cadence. Reduces the number of Mobile issues that might otherwise block a wider release from going out"
    I think it's best to not read too much into this, but at the same time, keep all options open. Obviously, the discussion at this point about "Windows 10 Mobile" being dead is really inside stuff as the adoption rate of the OS is so low as to make the "debate" a little odd. Clearly, as a consumer option, Windows 10 Mobile has been a non-option for nearly the last year with only the Elite x3 and Alcatel Idol 4 keeping any contemporary discussion of the OS alive. There is also the larger strategy of folding mobile, cellular, and ARM into proper Windows 10, which seems like a forgone conclusion at this time. When you consider that along with more powerful cellular SoC in 2018 new device designs that are mobile PCs become a thing. Just look at the recent Indiegogo for the GPD Pocket 7.0' UMPC-Laptop with Windows 10 for one interesting idea.
  • Still sad it's death is imminent Dan.
  • See, this a perfect example of another thing I've been saying; No matter what is actually reported, someone always comes with this garbage.
  • At this stage I'm surprised you are too stupidly myopic to see what's happening. When did you get on board, with L950?
  • Stupid?? Wow, you have nerve... If you're that unhappy and still using it who's really "stupid"?
  • Haha.  And if he's moved on, why is he wasting his time here?
  • It doesn't matter what Microsoft wants, or how Daniel interprets it--the market has spoken... and Windows Phone/Mobile is DEAD.
  • Hmmm... and what have you done in the "market" that gives you the ability to say this, other than spend money?  In other words, you know nothing about "the market". Move along.  
  • You really don't need to be condescending. It seems to me that is Windows Mobile dies, then the rest of the operating system will soon follow. Android is already taking over as the most used OS on the planet. Google is improving the Chromebook. It won't be long before you will be able to do everything with Android. That will be a sad day. Microsoft needs a mobile presence to keep Android from taking over on the desktop. I really think that Windows Mobile has a sound structure and advantages to Android and I would hate to have to start using Android as my main mobile OS even though I use a Chromebook much more than a Windows laptop at home. I am writing this comment on my Chromebook. But I much prefer using my Windows 640 over my Galaxy S7 running the latest version of Android. 
  • Most used OS is a bloated statement knowing that for every 1 PC in any household there are more than one smartphone user in that house so it's only obvious that the numbers will increase. I wonder if that stat also showed how many got rid of their Windows PCs and used their smart phone or tablets instead.
  • Or, like my house. We still have 2 PCs, they still run fine, but they dont get used much. I still do some video editing or photo work on the PC from time to time, but mostly they sit idle. They arent even file servers anymore, I have a Synology NAS for that. When those PCs get outdated, there's a good chance, I'll shut one or both down for good.
  • I really think again and again when any one says "Android has became the most used OS on the planet". I really want to ask "which version?" and would love to see "that" version in a billion devices, yet alone used, to see that it has indeed over taken Windows 7. However, every one comes up with the useless data about Android is used for light browsing.
  • Android is android... Not that is that apps from 7 won't run on 8 and those from 8 won't run in 10... In android at least 4 upwards which makes up more than 98% of the os are supported by apps.. So fragmentation is not an issue at all in android.. And they all have google play services
  • Nope,  on my note 1,  99% of the apps still run on it,  and thats 4.0.4.  My lepan mini tablet,  same thing...thats 4.2.1 and it's still getting all of the current apps no issue.   
  • At the time of compiling the apps, we will start picking the version from which it should support. Any app that supports since the oldest version, is not optimized for the newest things the OS has to offer. Or has to do a lot of work around to run better.  In any case, it doesn't support the case of "merging" 2 different OS'.
  • Just because an OS is backward compatible, doesn't mean that we can combine the OS. Even Windows 10 can run DOS apps. So will you call a machine running Windows 10 as a machine running DOS? PS: Fragmentation IS an issue. And will plague Android forever, as per Google's stand right now.
  • I think your wrong with this. I have moved to android because of losing some key apps on windows mobile but i have a Windows 10 tablet and laptop. Mobile OS's will now be the bigger share in terms of user base as for home users as most people now own a phone. At the moment they only really have 2 choices android and iOS. As for pc business still need to use Windows as chrome is not powerful enough for this and lacks the software on windows it's the same for Mac's. Also gamers will own windows to as it offers the most games and they will have a back catalogue of older games that won't work on chrome, Mac ect. As for Windows mobile it is looking bad for the os which is ashame as for me i prefer it to android and iOS but lack of apps and watch support will carry on hurting the os. Microsoft now need to look at scrapping it all together or have a big push again like they did with Windows phone 7. The phone market is drying up now though saying that as there is no need to buy a new phone Evey 1 or 2 years as the changes are really not that much different now. For Microsoft to get back in the game they need to offer something different like continuum but also make the phone stand out form the rest to. How they do that though i have not got a clue.
  • So, you're telling me that all the enterprise servers currently running Windows Server will soon be switching over to Android? Who knew?
  • Why will it be a sad day when Windows goes away?  I've used it since 3.1 and it never has been a great OS.  OS/2 was far better than Win 3.1 and OS/2 2.0 was much better than Win 95.  IBM just couldn't see the forest for the trees and market or support it.  Linux is a better server OS than NT, 2k, 2k3, 2k8, 2012, 2016.  Mac OS X is better than Win 7 and 10.   Microsoft has had a great run but needs to go extict like the hundreds of companies before them.  
  • That's not going to happen and the reason why its the best selling in the business world is because it all works together and also offers more than the rest in terms of software and features. As for mac os is better than windows 7 and 10 ok you tell your self that one. OS X needs a massive updates its vey outdated now.
  • In my mind, nothing has changed from 6 months ago. The OS had no chance then with consumers and that's the same now. The only questions I'm concerned with is Is the OS still being worked on? and What are Microsoft's actual plans for mobile in 2018?. Other than those two things nothing is new here.
  • Well Dan, I guess we will learn something good or bad come May 2nd and the following week at Build. We just have to keep our fingers crossed.
  • I guess we will learn something good or bad come May 2nd and the following week at Build. I'm guessing that if we hear anything at Build, it will be cryptic like everything else we've been hearing, and we won't know any more than we did. Hopefully not though! Good, bad, exciting, terrifying, whatever, bring it on. At least let us know!
  • Cryptic and vague..and of course PRODUCTIVE (looking at you Mr. Nadella).
  • Dan is in denial.
  • Yet again, this is typically where things go off the rails. When, and where have you seen ANYTHING saying that mobile will be discussed at either of those events?  Misinformation, speculation, and assumption being passed off as facts. 
  • regular usual thing, hate how so much stuff is passed off as facts
  • I see it largely the same way. Microsoft is not interested in competing in the consumer space with Windows 10 Mobile and wisely so - that ship has already sailed. W10M's demise in its current form therefore seems inevitable at some point in the not-too-distant future. It wouldn't do Microsoft's image any good, however, to declare it dead any more than it did with RT, especially given how it has oriented its Mobile focus on business customers. It makes sense to me, too, that Microsoft would want to blur the lines between PCs, tablets and phones becasue if they brought out a Surface Phone that actually could double as a PC, what would be the point in owning a Surface tablet? If anything, I'm expecting them to come out with something that somehow works as both. Before any of that, though, I'd be happy to see some improvements in their corporate PR department.
  • The death of Windows on phone as we know it's surely dead, since MS is looking to shift to a device aimed squarely at business. This could be successful, even with the app status, since the app gap doesn't affect business users. But if that/those device/s are aimed at the commercial sector, then they are unlikely to be the devices that consumers want. MS has given such mixed signals by binning so many current devices from insider program, that I personally don't know where they are headed. I pretty sure that MSFT don't WANT my money, when I next upgrade.
  • Bad news...the same customers that MS has crapped on, are the same employees the business sector employs, which are the same customers they crapped on. And most corporations purchase what the employees ask for...less training and makes a happy employee. Have watched it happen over and over.
  • @missionsparta I can agree to that. We have also tried to give users Lumia 650 and 950s and got only negative feedbacks and anger, especially from those that do regular business trips, because of the lack of apps such as transportation, local city apps etc. And believe me you don't wanna anger someone who is top notch and keeps the services going just because MS thinks their pathetic OS is good for business. So we exchanged most of them to whatever they liked from a range of ios and android models.
  • Wrong. Apps do affect business users! And it's not only apps that business users need, but also commitment and trust, which Microsoft has failed to provide ever since Nadella took over.
  • Apps, (or lack there of), affects everyone and the main reason why my wife and I sold our 1020s.  We loved the phones, but Microsoft made it hard,  so hard that we jumped ship to IOS.  Its great having any app you need at your fingertips.  
  • For me--and I realize I'm a minority within a minority--it comes down to the question about how much will the phone experience change?  Let's assume you've got the right idea, that Microsoft will eventually roll in or supplant what we currently know as W10M with the full-blown Windows on ARM.  Let's also assume your idea that they got all code they needed from mobile to role into the One Core, and that the goal is for the OS to recognize the hardware it's on and it morphs itself to function how Microsoft interprets is "phone-friendly".  My fear is, as much as I really HATE what they've done to the OS in W10M compared to WP7 and WP8, they will likely depart even MORE so with Windows On ARM...and that will be the breaking point for me.  Right now, SO much of W10M feels like Android that it's sickening to me.  Almost none of what I loved about WP7 and WP8 exists anymore.  As Paul Thurrott suggested some time ago, they really could have just come up with a Windows Phone Start Screen/Shell and thrown it on Android and be done with it.  As far as I'm concerned, a facade is still a facade.  That's what this is starting to feel like now. So, they probably ARE just in a kind of maintenance mode for mobile now until they get WOA to deployment and they hope we'll all buy new devices with the necessary horsepower to run it.  They figure we'll forgive them yet another reboot, and forgive them for an even more dramatic change to the phone user experience because "look at all the really cool stuff you can do NOW!"  But I never needed all that.  I never WANTED all that.  I loved WP7 and, to a lesser extent, WP8.  They just never felt "finished". I wanted them to FINISH the OS, complete the promise of what that user experience was like.  But they didn't do that.
  • Well said, my issue for MSoft's success here is that W10M is not fully developed and if they include it in WOA those issues would still remain. I seem to recall thinking that W10M on Lumia would be a development ground for a surface phone but with another reboot this seems wrong. Of course it will mean another underdeveloped initial OS release, subsequent bad reviews followed by a lack of public interest leading to a massive price drop. All good news for anyone still interested in MSofts dilly dallying in new operating systems. In addition to what you have said above, I still wonder how strong the product line up would be had they released and developed further the L2520 mini which was never released. I loved my L2520 and its still great now.
  • Exactly, whats the point of hoping for mobile devices with W10 ARM if in the meantime (few years!) MS didn't hold event its biggest fans, didn't created at least small consumer base AND because of that didn't maintain apps around it!
  • If only they could've continued developing 7.X.  I have never been swayed by apps.  But WP 7.X and to a lesser extent 8.X had great features.  The ability to download maps via Here and so you didn't have to use data.  Microsoft and Nokia was a great team!  But WP 7.X was special.  With every new iteration Microsoft is dropping things that made WP special.  I have no conceivable idea what their future phone OS will look like.  Maybe they will scrap everything and present something new.  Which would be a bigger disappointment.
  • If no one's making hardware or apps how much longer will they continue to develop it? What's the point of maintaining an OS that won't have any devices to run it and lacks a software ecosystem?
  • In Microsoft's defense, WOA means any newer hardware using ARM processors are fair game.  OEMs will still be making hardware because virtually all smartphones are ARM-based.  As long as the processor has sufficient horsepower & cores, and there's enough storage and memory, Microsoft doesn't have to chase down OEMs.  If it really is WOA, then that means it will likely be doing some sort of Win32 virtualization to execute legacy programs, and UWP would take care of the rest.  Apps won't be a problem because they really aren't a problem now on W10 for PCs.  MY contention is that the user experience on a smartphone will be horrible for those of us who really adored Metro.
  • Again that Win32 argument. So what it will run Win32 apps if nobody needs apps from that era on mobile devices! Using anything from Adobe would be a nightmare, same with any CADs etc. "Enterprises" you would say? Look what is already going on in industry even with Android devices which are nightmare but at least they are on the market :/ UWP is the ONLY way to go. But so far they did everything what they could to push developers aside. We had to rewrite apps for WP and then W10 few times! Now with WP/W10 Mobile market killed literally by Microsoft itself it's immposible that I could convince any big brand to build app for W10 Mobile as I can for iOS and Android. Remember the times when companies and big brands had Windows Store logo just inline with Google Play and Apple Store? Now it's gone. It will be almost impossible to rebuild that position, would be so much easier if WP/W10 would just stay around 10% of market share. And that was simple, over 30 markets mostly here in Europe proved that.
  • WOA will work only on S835 and upgraded chips. I don't see how it could be successful at all. Sure. Full Windows is awesome. But you cannot gain a percentage back with just high end phones. Apple, selling only high end with loads of crazy fans, still a 10 percent phone. This surface phone can emulate Win32 but cannot emulate any success.
  • Name one mainstream Windows app you would want to run on a phone. WoA isn't the answer. You still won't have mobile apps and the phone will be weighed down with full Windows. No way that is going to be a good experience. WoA is going to be mostly small, light laptops. They will have ok battery life but performance will be lacking. It is going to be another failure. Maybe in 5 years when ARM chips are more powerful it may make more sense.
  • Plenty of them in, Continuum mode. I'd love to have Final Draft to work on screenplays, for example. Photoshop is another. You keep saying phone when you should say device as we have no idea what they're cooking up.
  • Final Draft is actually available for iOS, so go ahead and buy that iPad mini.
  • No thanks.
  • Thats pointless....just buy a laptop.  REAL APPs are for mobility.  Continuum is a gimmick.  Having a phone with apps that you need to connect to a monitor and keyboard is a home computer...not a mobile device.  
  • To you perhaps. I think gimmick and pointless are overused and not helpful to the discussion. Because YOU don't use it doesn't make it a universally pointless gimmick. I have a real laptop. I also see the potential for docking a mobile device to take advantage of a larger screen and input devices. I can connect to a Win10 computer and use my Office Suite, if the person or business I'm visiting doesn't have it. I don't need to log into my accounts on a public computer. If I use my "fake" laptop/dock, I can still leverage Office suite as well as the phone's data tethering needed.
  • @ScubaDog    Metro has been long gone. That ship sailed like 5 years ago.