Three years ago, Microsoft appeared at IFA to launch two new Windows phones. They were mid-range devices, the Lumia 830 and the 730, but they continued Microsoft’s then interesting push into mobile and mobile imaging. Two years ago, Acer’s Jade Primo broke cover at IFA as the first Windows 10 Mobile powered device, complete with Continuum support and flagship level specs. Now, It’s 2017, and mobile is still is very big at IFA– the LG V30 is one of the most talked about pieces of tech from last week’s tech show, Google’s Assistant is expanding to more and more devices, Samsung’s Note 8 has been launched with rave reviews, with Apple’s iPhone 8 just around the corner.
Within all this excitement in the mobile world, Microsoft is almost nowhere to be found. That is not to say that Redmond hasn’t been in the news with regard to mobile or mobile services, far from it. The NYPD is reportedly switching from Windows Phones to the iPhone due to a lack of ongoing support. The worst part, when defending the reason for adopting Windows phones, the decision maker in charge could not cite any good technical reason for adopting Windows phones. The much loved live tiles do not make an appearance here, nor do Microsoft’s handling of email and basic smartphones needs come in, it is simply that the smartphones had cheap management software, allowing them to be deployed under budget. In “good” news, two little-known OEMs showed off Windows phones with hardware which would be excellent were we in 2014 heading to 2015, and not in 2017 heading to 2018. In the meantime, the marketshare of Windows in the overall personal computing market continues to decline, and growth prospects are dire for future PCs while Android and iOS are currently capturing billions of mobile users, some of whom will never need a traditional PC. It’s tempting to ask “how did we get here?”, but the answer is so obvious it needs not be rehashed in detail. Instead, one must ask, can Microsoft get out of this hole? Should they?
It should go without saying that Windows cannot rely on being the best at productivity forever. People often point out complex workflows and tasks that can only be accomplished on Windows. One cannot, for instance, build an app for the iPhone or Android using an iOS equipped device at the present, but that does not mean that the same limitation will exist in the future. One cannot use traditional desktop apps on the Chromebook at the present, but that does not mean that one requires traditional desktop apps to be productive, the web grows more powerful every day, and a browser and extensions are often what many need. Instead, as the next generation of tech users grows up using Chromebooks in schools and toting around iPhones at home, they will tailor their workflows around these devices, with nary a thought about the legacy Windows desktop.
The desktop, previously Microsoft’s bread and butter, isn’t thriving right now in the present, and arguably, has been dead for a while. While many have praised the frequent update cadence offered by Microsoft and the introduction of new features into the operating system, the lack of innovative features has not gone unnoticed. Yes, Microsoft has added a dark theme, and fluent design, and a virtual trackpad, but there’s only so much excitement one can squeeze out of minor additions to what is essentially a utility. In terms of software, no one is building hot new apps or programs for Windows at any appreciable scale –heck no one has for some time which is why Microsoft decided to force the issue with Windows 8. The few apps which are being created are increasingly built on platform agnostic web technologies, so they can be ported to all platforms quickly and efficiently. One can point to Slack, Spotify, WhatsApp and even Skype’s new desktop app as examples.
Microsoft is–to its credit– attempting to push out new technologies which have the potential supplant mobile and make themselves consumer relevant once, more at a fast pace, but one must question the staying power of such endeavours. In the past 3 years alone, Microsoft has pushed Continuum, Bots, Assistants and Mixed Reality et al as the future of computing. Continuum and other similar mobile desktops have failed to take-off, with Microsoft’s Windows 10 Mobile being dead, the Android-based Remix OS shutting down, and even Samsung’s Dex not doing much to move the needle. Bots for their part have not brought on the revolution we were promised, and while everyone and their mother sought to integrate bots into messaging apps, those features floundered and failed too. Virtual Assistants and Mixed reality are a bit more complicated. Assistants like Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant are becoming more useful on our PCs and mobile devices, and are expanding from there to speakers and other home appliances. While Cortana had a head start on Google Assistant and Alexa, the lack of a mobile companion to Microsoft’s Windows makes discoverability difficult. Yes, Microsoft offers an Android and iPhone app for Cortana, and incentives for users to install them and link up with their Windows 10 PCs, but that isn’t enough. Unlike other apps and services, one digital assistant is more often than not as good as the other. This means that for any given user, the default experience on their smartphone is very much likely good enough. Cast aside the Google/Microsoft fanboys who would use Google Assistant/Cortana on the iPhone/Android, and we find that the default apps win 9/10 times. When it comes to mixed reality, although Microsoft was first to wow the world with Hololens, Apple and Google have more practical and accessible solutions. With ARKit and ARCore, Silicon Valley is bringing Augmented Reality to products you are more likely to have on you, your smartphone. While the AR market is as unproven at the moment, it isn’t hard to conceptualise that smartphones might be a more fertile testing ground than unwieldy headsets.
There are a few things that Microsoft could do to improve its consumer relevance (in theory) that have been suggested. On the mobile end, some have suggested that Microsoft build an Android phone packed with Microsoft’s services and the Google Play store, much like Samsung, Huawei and other Android OEMs do. It is unlikely that there will be a strategic payoff for this, as Microsoft only builds hardware to aid in the delivery of its services and software. The Google Play Store already serves as a distribution platform for Microsoft’s apps, and the saturation of the Android market makes it unlikely that any new OEM can break out. Others have suggested another Windows-powered mobile device. The pitfalls of this would include the dual stigma of Windows and Windows Phone, as well as the continuing saga of no apps. It would effectively be dead on arrival. A more realistic option is that Microsoft accepts its new, smaller, place in the market. Forget about aiming for 1 billion users or other unrealistic numbers, but instead, continue what it does best. Providing the best, and most powerful desktop platform for those who need it, and powerful mobile apps for professionals. The audience for desktop specific software will shrink in time as the web and mobile apps become more powerful, but that is simply natural. This would not be the death of Microsoft or Windows per se, Windows (and other full desktop OSes) are overkill for what they are often used. It would simply be a reflection of the reality of how we truly use our devices. Can that really be such a bad thing?