Foley on Microsoft

Is It Last Call for Windows Mobile?

Many of us Microsoft watchers for nearly a decade have made predictions if, and how, Microsoft would come up with a mobile strategy that might finally catch fire.

Microsoft's latest attempt to gain some ground with its mobile strategy involved writing down its $7.2 billion Nokia handset acquisition and narrowing Microsoft's focus around a handful of Windows Phone-based devices last summer. Management seems to be counting on the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) to attract developers to write apps for Windows 10 Mobile, despite its dwindling market share, because it'll be a relatively low-effort affair once they've built a Windows 10 PC app.

As a die-hard Windows Phone fan, I have to say that strategy isn't inspiring my confidence. I'm worried the Windows Phone platform may not be here for the long term. Its short-term prospects aren't looking too good, either, until Microsoft fields the first rumored Surface Phone for business users and enthusiasts, possibly before the end of 2016.

The way I see it, Microsoft has a few remaining options for trying to stay in the mobile game. On the short list:

1. Decouple Windows 10 Mobile and Windows Phone hardware and leave the phone hardware to OEMs. It seems several Windows Phone OEMs are building Windows 10 Mobile handsets (for whatever crazy reasons they have). Acer, Alcatel, HP, Vaio, Xiaomi and others seem to still believe there's hope. Maybe the best thing Microsoft could do is get out of their way and stop competing for the tiny piece of the mobile pie that Windows Phone devices currently own.

2. Follow the Surface business model by even more tightly coupling the OS and the hardware. Based on cryptic and a few not-so-cryptic comments from Microsoft top brass, I think this is most likely where the company is going. Microsoft has found a premium niche with its Surface tablet and laptop line. Increasingly, it seems the company is building Windows 10 with Surfaces and Surface Phones in mind.

3. Keep making the Windows 10 Mobile OS and premium hardware only. Leave the rest to remaining OEMs similar to the Google Nexus strategy. Maybe the Microsoft-designed and -branded Surface handsets end up emerging as PCs/tablets first and as phones second. Microsoft's stance that Continuum for Phones is a killer feature is all about moving the definitional goalposts as to what constitutes a mobile device.

4. Try to attract more apps to the platform by tweaking UWP so that it also targets Android, letting developers target Android and Windows 10 when writing UWP apps. If Microsoft really has killed its plans for an Android bridge to bring Android apps to Windows 10, this might be an interesting alternative. I'm not really sure Windows Phone's failure is solely, or even largely, due to a lack of apps, but more apps couldn't hurt.

I don't know how long CEO Satya Nadella and team plan to continue to try to get Windows Phone/Windows 10 Mobile to reverse its course. Unlike his predecessors (former CEOs Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates), Nadella doesn't seem to have the appetite to pour money into parts of Microsoft's business until they eventually break even -- or sometimes never do.

To the consternation of many of the remaining Windows Phone fans, Microsoft is simultaneously building up its support for iOS and Android by building and buying lots of apps and services there. I'm assuming the idea is for Microsoft to maintain visibility and relevance if its own mobile platform ultimately fails by owning some of the best apps and services for the winning mobile platforms.

As Microsoft management warned during the company's most recent earnings call, things are going to get worse on the Windows Phone front before -- if ever -- they get better. Microsoft is expecting sales of its Lumia phones to continue to plummet during Q3 of fiscal 2016.

Can Microsoft still fix its burning mobile platform after things bottom out? I've started test-driving an Android phone to be ready, just in case.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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