Windows Phone: What Might Have Been

A week ago, my two-year old Lumia Icon fell out of my pocket. Though gravity had only about seven inches with which to wreak havoc, the phone landed screen-side down on a bump on my slate patio, sending a spider web of cracks through the glass.

Lumia Icon cracked screen
Cracked screen on my Lumia Icon

My phone’s demise foreshadowed something bigger. Just three days later, Microsoft began shutting down what remains of its Nokia smartphone acquisition. While the company insists it’s not giving up on phone hardware, with market share hovering under 1% in Q1 2016, it looks like Microsoft no longer will compete for consumer business. Most of my Nokia colleagues have moved into other roles inside Microsoft and beyond, but I feel for those who stuck it out. They’ve been underdogs in every sense for years yet still turned out impressive work. The market didn’t reward them for it, but they will walk away possessing stories of grit and determination that will make for some terrific job interviews in the weeks and months ahead.

After nearly 10 years at Nokia and Microsoft in which I got a couple of new phones every year, I found myself shopping for a new device for the first time in the smartphone era. I considered three options: an unlocked Windows 10 device and connecting it to my Verizon account, an iPhone and an Android.

Every option came with trade-offs. Even the mighty market leaders have some warts.

Apple’s hardware and software are elegant and powerful, but the company seems to be deliberately sitting out a wave of deeply personalized mobile assistants that Google and Microsoft have built. That’s consistent with its self-proclaimed modesty about data collection and usage – see its iAd advertising platform, its much-maligned maps, and its refusal to cooperate with the FBI in the San Bernardino investigation. Apple’s ecosystems never have played nicely with non-Apple software and hardware. For these reasons, Apple will be at a significant disadvantage over the next few years as its competition combines detailed consumer data and machine learning to create services that can anticipate what users want, automate repetitive tasks and work seamlessly with other hardware.

Android, unlike Apple, is investing heavily in machine learning. It aspires to connect devices of all types and is a leader in developing software for driverless vehicles. It has one of the three biggest cloud businesses in the world. All of this investment points to an ecosystem poised to leap ahead of Apple’s as users look to their smartphones to do more than download apps and media. On the other hand, Android’s open source code base has resulted in Symbian-esque fragmentation. Hardware manufacturers can pick any version of Android they’d like to use on their phones, and they don’t even need to enable these devices to update over the air.

I would have preferred to replace my Icon with another Windows device because its “metro” style UI is familiar and so easy (for me) to use. The Windows app gap, though, is real and large. Of the popular apps available, many haven’t been updated in years. The one Windows Phone at Verizon runs on an older version of the software, and the screen’s resolution is limited to 720p.

In the end, I purchased a Samsung Galaxy S7 because I could tolerate its compromises more than I could any other option. Though I’ve been impressed, I’ve already downloaded an app that isn’t compatible with my device, something that never happened to me on Windows Phone.

Coming as it did more than three years after the first iPhone, you could argue that Microsoft was doomed before it even started, though I dispute that. Meanwhile, Apple and Android force their customers to compromise in key ways. I wish Microsoft had something for me, which is what makes its failure in this market so disappointing. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Had Microsoft been able to nurture an apps marketplace on a par with what’s available for iPhone and Android, I and many others would be carrying Windows devices today.

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