Seeking Clues to MS’s Strategy in Windows 10 Mobile
February 23, 2017
Before launching into the remainder of the series on mobile app development, I thought it would be instructive to take a look at what Microsoft has been quietly up to with Windows 10 Mobile. The battle for dominance of the smartphone arena ended long ago with Apple and Google leaving with the cup. Microsoft gave it a shot, but in the end was left with a paltry share of less than 1% of the mobile OS market. But like the intrepid, albeit hapless driver in the Cake song “The Distance,” Microsoft is “still driving and striving and hugging the turns, and still thinking about someone for whom he still burns.”
And by all indications, MS looks to be going the distance despite no conceivable hope of ever gaining an inch of market share in the consumer smartphone market. Is there method in this seeming madness or is it yet another Redmond folly that will end getting chucked like so many others that have preceded it? The quest for an answer must begin with the long and winding journey of MS’s mobile OS development efforts going back to its earliest days with the Pocket PC mobile OS.
Back when PDAs roamed the earth
Once upon a time there were devices known as Personal Digital Assistants. PDAs for short, back before that acronym became hijacked. The early ones were glorified handheld calculators with a calendar and address book tacked on for good measure. But at their core they were computers running an embedded OS. The early ones had a hardware keyboard wedded to an LCD display, which eventually evolved into touchscreens requiring a stylus. The first PDA can be traced back to 1982, but their heyday was the early to mid-2000s.Throughout this period, MS developed the Pocket PC standard governing the hardware and software supporting these types of devices. The evolution of this lineage can be found on Wikipedia, but the fundamental progression went from Pocket PC to WinCE to Windows Phone to Windows Mobile. Of course, there were many incremental versions of each major release in between.
Then the iPhone happened
It was the marriage of PDAs and mobile phones resulting in the birth of the smartphone that changed everything. Mobile phones with an embedded OS had been around prior to the release of the first iPhone in 2007, but the touchscreen technology Apple incorporated into the iPhone was the mobile industry’s moon walk. Some clever attempts to integrate a physical QWERTY keyboard into early mobile phones consisted of slide out implementations that look both quaint and kludgy today. Things would never be the same after the debut of the iPhone.Google would jump into the fray a year later with the introduction of their Android mobile OS. MS was still in the thick of things with Windows Phone. MS has always been known for their stellar support for developers by providing professional development tools with a wealth of documentation and resources. Sure, such support often comes at a premium, but for enterprise users it’s well worth it especially when compared to the dearth of documentation released with most open source projects. Initially, developers gladly built apps for Windows Phone devices, but the pull of the ever-growing ecosystem of Apple and Google smartphones soon caused them to leave the MS platform behind.Microsoft, like Google, isn’t in the business of manufacturing hardware - Xbox and Hololens aside. However, while still in contention for the consumer smartphone market, then CEO Steve Ballmer. purchased Finnish smartphone maker, Nokia, for $7.2 billion. It would prove to be a boondoggle with MS giving up on Nokia devices and the entire division two years later. It was clear – or should have been – that there was no overcoming the Apple and Google mobile OS hydra.
A new CEO and a new vision
Under current CEO, Satya Nadella, MS is forging ahead with their latest generation of a smartphone OS: Windows 10 Mobile. MS was clearly on the ropes a few years ago and the vultures were circling, waiting for the former computing behemoth to go the way of others of its ilk to be inevitably be subsumed by a younger, but larger and more successful competitor. But then Windows 10 happened.Windows 10 breathed new life into the great inventor of the modern OS. Granted, it wasn’t going to single-handling resurrect flagging PC sales, which continue to decline year over year, but it was a long overdue and much heralded facelift for the Windows OS. To Microsoft’s credit, it had already established footholds in the gaming console market with its surprisingly popular Xbox franchise and was making great strides with its enterprise cloud solutions based around Azure. The popularity of its Surface tablet PC line also came as a nice surprise offering some formidable competition to Apple’s iPad. This brings us back to the question of why MS seems so invested in pushing forward with Windows 10 Mobile.
Universal Windows and the demand for security in the enterprise
The driving force behind Windows 10 Mobile is MS’s Universal Windows strategy: the ability to seamlessly run Windows 10 apps across the full gamut of devices. This strategy is anchored on MS’s cloud solution. Instead of using an app from an app store to run MS Office on a smartphone, you actually run a Windows 10 version of MS Office on both your desktop and smartphone. The license is shared across devices and all of your notifications and documents are synchronized. This may sound really cool, but in the end so what if no one wants a Windows mobile device and developers aren’t bothering to give the platform another look?OK, wait for it…security. MS has conceded that they lost the battle for the consumer smartphone market a while back. They now have their eye on enterprise customers. In the age of BYOD and all the data security nightmares that come along with this craze, MS is banking on savvy enterprise customers appreciating the value of deploying a tightly-controlled computing ecosystem where enterprise apps run seamlessly and securely across enterprise-controlled devices from desktops PCs to notebooks to tablets and finally to smartphones all managed from the cloud. The market may not be there yet for Windows 10 Mobile and the intended customers may not even realize they need this solution, but MS is still churning and burning while the others have long since left the arena.