Microsoft’s new Windows Phones aren’t going to sell, but that’s part of the plan

Windows phones are free of the burden of expectations of Windows Phone


Five years ago, British actor and noted technophile Stephen Fry walked out on a London stage to talk about Microsoft’s ability to delight. He was using Apple’s iPhone marketing language to describe the new mobile operating system from Microsoft, Windows Phone 7. Speaking of his "great pleasure" at using the new OS, Fry said it had a "rather sleek, almost liquid feel," and he was thrilled to see Microsoft rebooting its mobile efforts in such a dramatic, human-centric fashion. Between his praise in London and Steve Ballmer’s lofty promises at a simultaneous launch event in New York City, you could see Microsoft’s own expectations were sky-high, and the Redmond company wasn’t shy about inflating them further.

In a stroke of déjà vu, we find ourselves in another October, with Microsoft once again rebooting its failing mobile efforts. The era of Windows Phone, which had started off so delightfully full of promise, didn’t realize its potential, and Microsoft has rethought things once again and now prepares to take the wraps off its first Windows 10 Mobile devices. It all looks familiar, except — to borrow another Apple marketing line — the only thing that’s changed is everything.

Nadella's Microsoft has a very different idea about how to win in mobile

Satya Nadella has replaced Steve Ballmer at the helm of Microsoft, and he’s brought with him a fundamentally different vision for the future of computing and Microsoft’s place in it. Ballmer believed in devices and services; Nadella is staking Microsoft’s future on mobile and the cloud. The former wanted to be more like Apple, exploiting the synergies of designing both the hardware and software of the company’s devices, while the latter has priorities closer to Google’s, aiming to get the company’s services in front of the most people, no matter the platform. Windows 10 Mobile and the devices powered by it will be just a piece of Microsoft’s broader mobile strategy — rather than the crux of it, as they were with Windows Phone 7.

It’s easy to forget just how much investment went into the Windows Phone venture from outside Microsoft. On launch day, Dell showed off the Venue Pro, LG and Samsung had multiple models to offer, and HTC went all-in with a comprehensive family of WP7 devices. Later, carriers like AT&T poured in big marketing dollars to promote the latest flagship Windows Phones — "at all levels, this is a notch above anything we’ve ever done" — and HTC again made a major effort for the debut of Windows Phone 8 with its "signature" Windows Phone 8X and 8S handsets. Those investments proved fruitless, and together with Microsoft’s apparent favoring of Nokia (before its acquisition in 2013), they’ve now built up a level of wariness, if not outright distrust, when it comes to Microsoft’s latest mobile offerings.

Directly competing with Android and the iPhone is futile, and Microsoft knows it

Microsoft knows that the hurdles to competing with iOS and Android haven’t changed. They’ve just grown higher and more daunting. The iPhone is ensconced in the warm glow of the world’s best and broadest app ecosystem, and Google’s Android platform is almost as good. Between them, the two leading operating systems account for nearly 97 percent of all new smartphone sales. BlackBerry has given up trying to develop its own competing solution and has opted for Android app compatibility (and soon an Android smartphone). Microsoft has also given up competing directly, and is actually helping enhance Android's and the iPhone’s lead by preloading its Office suite on Android devices and collaborating with Apple on Office for the iPad Pro.

Not even the most optimistic forecasts for the upcoming Lumia 950 and 950 XL would suggest them as realistic challengers to the current best-selling smartphones. That might have been a big problem if Microsoft was still pursuing its old Windows Phone strategy, but it’s less so given the company’s new direction. Much like Google’s Nexus line, Windows 10 phones are not intended to grab market share or establish a profitable revenue source. The Lumias that are coming this week serve as a form of fan service and as a preview for what Microsoft will be able to do in the future. Unique functionality like Windows Hello and Continuum can still set the stage for renewed interest in Microsoft’s mobile offerings, especially among enterprise customers who’d be looking for a comprehensive security solution that can span all their devices.

More than anything, Microsoft has to convince people that Windows phones matter at all.

With consumers now increasingly entrenched in either the Apple or Google camp, and with device manufacturers dubious about partnering with Microsoft again, it was obvious that Windows 10 Mobile needed to be different. And so it is, characterized by better integration and synchronization between Microsoft’s mobile devices and its desktop software. New universal apps will be able to run across all screen sizes and versions of Windows 10, and the ultimate goal is to deliver a universal experience that transfers seamlessly between devices.

What Microsoft is selling now is an easier, more convenient life. On the mobile front, this is defined by the company’s traditional strengths of software and services, deemphasizing hardware design and uniqueness. You can see it in the relatively anonymous appearance of the new Lumias: they look functional rather than fancy. The larger of them is expected to have Surface Pen support, and both should have iris scanners to enable Windows Hello. Instead of the broad palette of colors that have come to define Nokia’s Lumias, Microsoft’s devices look set to be available in just black, white, and cyan.

Whether you use a Surface Pro 4 with an iPhone, or an iPad Pro with an Android handset, or a Lumia 950 that can be made to function like a full PC, Microsoft just wants you using its apps and services. This collaborative rather than competitive approach trades away some of the unique advantages of the Microsoft ecosystem, but it can pay dividends in the future. If Microsoft can realize its vision of universal apps and a universal experience across all varieties of Windows 10, it can indeed attract new users from the ranks of iPhone and Android owners — and they’ll be much more willing and comfortable with making the switch if they’re already using Microsoft mobile software. To complete that task, though, Microsoft has to work to bring its competitors’ apps to its own platform as well, where Google’s Gmail and YouTube have been famously absent.

Evolutionary and collaborative instead of revolutionary and adversarial

This week’s Lumias come at a weird time for Microsoft. The company is undergoing a transformation that is not yet complete, much like its Windows 10 Mobile software. But the new phones are still significant in signaling exactly where and how Microsoft intends to go with its mobile strategy. One thing working in their favor is that they’re not saddled with the unrealistic expectations that plagued Windows Phone throughout its existence. The old OS always had good and laudable aspects, but they never matured to justify the hype surrounding it. Now, without any fanfare, Microsoft can rebuild its mobile OS around Windows 10 and focus on marketing the strong features it has rather than the comprehensive mobile platform it lacks.

The Lumia 950 and its bigger sibling are intended not as a revolution, but as a solid foundation to a brighter and better future for Microsoft’s mobile efforts. They should be judged on that basis, not on whether they’re able to make a dent in the Apple and Google duopoly. To achieve that lofty goal, Microsoft will need multiple generations of devices as well as the collaboration of other service providers willing to bring their apps to its platform. Tomorrow’s event will be indicative of how progress is going along that path, while also giving us a pair of interesting new devices to talk about.