End of an Era

What does the future hold for Microsoft’s mobile endeavours?

Unlike the Microsoft of the past, struggling to be relevant in a hostile market dominated by Google and Apple, the Microsoft of today is a very different beast, fighting a different battle. The tech giant of Redmond has never been in a better shape, with CEO Satya Nadella taking some drastic and unconventional calls which would have made his predecessor Steve Ballmer choke on his bacon sandwich. Nadella’s vastly superior survival instincts ensured that Microsoft would not only turn around their sinking status, but also forge new relationships across the industry which can spell the difference between make and break.
As part of their new range of conquests on the software front, Microsoft has been aggressively moving into the mobile ecosystems of Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS platforms, both of which enjoy massive user bases around the world. After struggling for years to break new grounds in the mobile scene with their own Windows Phone operating system, Microsoft, ultimately trailing behind its competitors, has decided to follow the age-old adage “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
Rather than attempting to futilely keep building its own platform from the ground, Microsoft has wisely chosen to suck up its failure by piggybacking on the already established bases of Android and iOS, by providing an excellent range of apps across both platforms – including the venerable Microsoft Office productivity suite (albeit in a somewhat cut-down factor to account for system limitations), the Outlook organizer-email client hybrid, the Cortana digital voice assistant, and as of late, the Edge browser. The apps are remarkably well-designed to suit the native environments of each OS, and user response has been greatly encouraging. Interesting parallels can be drawn between Microsoft’s decision and that of Sega, a gaming console titan from a bygone era. While a major innovator in the console gaming industry in the last millennium, as time went by, Sega found it increasingly more difficult to keep up with the consoles brought forth by the likes of rivals Nintendo and Sony, and eventually stopped making its own consoles to focus solely on developing games for the consoles of their competitors.

“Microsoft is looking forward to realizing the vision of a unified cross-platform future bridged by its apps across a wide range of devices with different operating systems on different hardware, yet running the same Microsoft apps on all of them.”

However, to gain something, some things must also be sacrificed, and Microsoft has made the harsh but practical decision of putting their aging but still hopelessly lacking Windows Phone platform on the chopping block. Windows Phone has languished in an agonizing limbo of laggardness for a very long time. This is especially saddening because it brought forth quite a few great ideas to the table, such as a super-minimalistic interface that focused on clarity through exquisite typography and simple ‘tiles’ that alternated between action points and information displays. The end result was not just distinctly recognizable, but it was also refreshingly different from the more iconographic interfaces of iOS and Android.
However, despite all its uniqueness, Windows Phone never quite managed to catch up with its market rivals, largely because of its late entry into the market. Had Windows Phone made it past the gates at the same time as its competing systems, the scenario in the market today may have been very different. But despite all sorts of pushes and prods, developer interest in the platform has been consistently low, with most developers choosing to develop for Android and/or iOS, while soundly disregarding Windows Phone.
It should be noted that Windows Phone’s ecosystem largely mimicked that of iOS in the sense of being a walled garden, where the host of the app store would be solely in charge of dictating the rules of app installation, availability and customization. This falls in sharp contrast with the openness of Android, which not only offers an absurd number of apps and deep-level customization tools on its official store (Google Play), but also allows users to install unofficially released app packages through a process called sideloading.
Granted, this kind of openness also opens up some room for exploitable vulnerabilities, but it is a great victory for someone who wants to use his/her phone with absolute freedom, without requiring to abide by rigid policies set by shadowy overlords. It can be speculated that if Microsoft had chosen to take the Android route of openness, by creating a more flexible and welcoming system (not unlike Windows running on desktop or laptop computers), it could have enjoyed considerably greater success, particularly among enthusiast circles.
Microsoft has officially announced the end of development on the Windows Phone platform, but what does it mean for the end user? It has been clarified that there will be no more new versions of Windows Phone beyond its current iteration, and no new devices which would come loaded with the now-deprecated operating system. However, Microsoft has ensured that while no new features would be added to the OS, it would still continue to receive official security updates and bugfixes so that existing users can keep using it for the time being. The news was confirmed by Joe Belfiore, the Corporate Vice President of Microsoft’s Operating Systems Group. Belfiore also elaborated upon the main reasons that were instrumental behind the closure of Windows Phone, such as low user volume and developer reluctance.
Despite a promising start and a fresh outlook, the downfall of Windows Phone was predicted by numerous market analysts right from the beginning. Microsoft even bravely attempted to refresh the system by applying fresh coats of paint to the software across new versions (which incidentally mirrored the release numbers of Windows’s desktop iterations), and even attempting to create an all-in-one solution called Continuum, which would allow a Windows Phone user to connect his/her phone to a docking station connected to a desktop monitor, keyboard and mouse, and be able to instantly use and access the phone and all its contents – software and data – as one would use a desktop computer. While a revolutionary and novel concept, Continuum never really became smooth and functional enough to be of practical use for most users.
While Windows Phone’s quiet exit will be mourned by its handful of devotees, Microsoft is looking forward to realizing the vision of a unified cross-platform future bridged by its apps across a wide range of devices with different operating systems on different hardware, yet running the same Microsoft apps on all of them. By embracing this new model of business, it has also gained a firm foothold in the mobile market, one that will benefit its current and new users alike. Windows Phone’s legacy will be fondly remembered, but the lessons learned from its shortfalls are far more memorable for Microsoft.

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