Windows Mobile autopsy holds warning for Windows 10 Mobile

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Today’s Windows Mobile is Microsoft second try at an OS with that name. Despite having an early first mover advantage with Windows Mobile in the early 2000’s Microsoft’s lead folded like a bad hand of cards when the iPhone and Android arrived on the scene in the second half of the decade.

We have not heard much about the reasons for this failure from inside the company, until a few weeks ago, when Christian Hernandez, who worked as a developer in the division, spoke out about his experience of this period in a Medium post.

He revealed that Microsoft did anticipate the upcoming evolution of mobile phones into internet-connected computing devices and that initially things were looking good, due to Microsoft having the following advantages:

  • A solid and stable embedded OS code base with WinCE and a growing PDA platform in PocketPC which integrated familiar apps and user experience to the desktop
  • A relationship with chip manufacturers and OEMs which should allow it to copy the model of the Wintel era onto smartphones where Microsoft provided the OS, reference designs and marketing dollars and OEMs built the hardware and took it to market
  • A well managed and broad set of application developers who lived and died by Microsoft and would surely support its new shift towards a mobile platform. This also included Microsoft’s own apps like Outlook, Word, Excel, MSN Messenger, Internet Explorer and XBox assets.
  • A lot of money in the bank to buy customers and market share

While it seemed the game was Microsoft’s to lose, the rise of RIM’s Blackberry caught Microsoft off-guard. Microsoft became confused by competing demands to challenge Blackberry on one end, Palm on the other and Symbian on the 3rd, and Microsoft’s traditional OEM partners were not playing ball, forcing Microsoft to partner with then ODM HTC.

Hernandez boils the issues to 4 points, the biggest being constant changes of direction:

Enterprise, consumer, enterprise, consumer: The single biggest driver to the failure of Windows Mobile to take off, was its key asset: Microsoft. In 2000 Microsoft hired Juha Christensen from Psion (the maker of Symbian) and his call to arms by the time I joined the team was to make the smartphone battle a “two-horse race” between Nokia/Symbian vs Microsoft. This strategy, by default, meant a large phone volume play, and therefore a consumer-centric offering. This meant putting Microsoft’s consumer assets (MSN Messenger, internet explorer, XBox) front and center. But Windows Mobile was a small business inside of Microsoft, and the cash cow still lay with Office and server products. RIM’s Blackberry Enterprise Server was slowing down upgrades to new versions of Exchange and the edict was given to Kill RIM (err sorry after the DOJ case, Microsoft employees were no longer allowed to say “kill”… “RIM-compete” was the right DOJ-approved title for the strategy). And so the focus of the small division flipped to a more narrow shipment volume of prosumer/enterprise-centric devices with Outlook and productivity as its core. The consumer/enterprise flip-flop would happen a few more times in the years to come. Juha left in the summer of 2003 and the two-horse race changed from Nokia vs Microsoft (consumer) to RIM vs Microsoft (enterprise).

Consumers drove the purchase decision: The Windows logo sold PCs. Ergo the windows logo (and all the familiarity that it implied) must also be able to sell phones… but it turns out that consumers didn’t yet care what OS the phone was running. Consumer just wanted their sexy RAZR flip-phones, or 8 mega-pixel Nokia camera phones, or low-cost LG phones. It was still, at that point, just a phone and the primary function was still primarily making a phone call (something some of the early Windows Mobile devices weren’t always that good at… and yes there was a way to CTRL-ALT+Del a WinMo device).

One-handed versus two-handed, keyboard vs touch screen: The PocketPC PDAs had been two handed-devices with stylus as inputs. The vision for Smartphone was always for it to be a one-handed device. It was actually pretty good as a inbox triage tool with one hand… But market feedback was puzzling. PocketPC was planned to be phased out to focus on Smartphone, but two-handed input as a consumer choice was still driving sales. As the iPhone and Android devices would prove soon-enough, consumers were willing to accept two handed input if it provided for richer features and bigger screens. Microsoft, given RIM-compete as an edict, focused on keyboards over touchscreen.

The “web” was not the “web”: The final nails in the WinMo coffin came in 2007 and 2008 when Apple launched the iPhone and Google launched Android. And it was not about the design of the iPhone or the amazing hinge Andy Rubin built for the Android G1, but more philosophically about what type of web consumers wanted on their mobile device. Microsoft, RIM and Nokia had all built ways to compress and reformat the web into smaller screens. These phone and OS makers seemed to believe they had the right to determine what the web should look like on a mobile device. Android’s vision had always been to have a full rich-HTML web experience on a mobile device (very googley) and both the iPhone and Android platforms launched with webkit browsers and full HTML support. And consumers voted with their thumbs…They wanted the “web” to be the web.

Hernandez’s revelation that Microsoft planned to kill of touch screen Windows Mobile on the eve of the iPhone’s launch  is an amazing demonstration of the lack of vision of the Microsoft team, who it appears were constant followers, being pushed around by other divisions inside Microsoft and following the lead of better performing companies and the demands of carriers, instead of trying to satisfy the end user.

Microsoft’s schizophrenic constant about face from consumer to enterprise to consumer and back again would of course continue even to the present day, with Windows Phone 7 and 8 being aimed at consumer, and Windows 10 Mobile once again going after the small volume enterprise market. It is of note that this did not work out for Microsoft on the last occasion.

Hernandez warns that he did not hold a senior position in the company, so he was not privy to all the strategy which ultimately failed inside Microsoft’s Windows Mobile division, but I think the warnings are still very clear – one can not win a race by constantly returning to the starting line. There can be no starting over again, no reboot and their OS needs to be all things to all people – hiding in a niche market will never produce results in the end.

Hernandez’s full article can be read here.

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