Yes, Windows Phone is still dead

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 11, 2017, 9:20 PM | comments: 0

Last weekend, there was some unceremonious news that Windows Phone was in fact dead. I guess it's weird that there really never was a formal announcement about this, but even among the faithful, myself included, we knew this two years ago.

I worked at Microsoft, in Redmond, when Windows Phone launched. At that time, I was on my second iPhone (the 3GS), and loved it dearly, but was excited about Windows Phone mostly because it was so stupid easy to develop for, while iPhone was not. Before the phones even shipped, I was able to whip up a quick and easy app to remind tired parents how long it was since you took care of your baby. (Seriously though... when your wife is passed out sleeping and you just got up, this kind of thing helps you figure out if the crying is because of hunger.) Eventually, the company gave all of us employees free phones, and AT&T did a BOGO which meant I got one for Diana as well for free. The Samsung Focus was kind of cheap feeling, but it was otherwise pretty solid.

A little less than two years later, I got the Lumia 920, which was pretty much the Windows Phone that all of the fans had. It had a pretty great camera (at the time), great battery life and the OS kept getting better. There were a lot of evolutionary changes that made the OS better than iOS, and definitely better than Android, which was a fragmented mess. There were unfortunately apps that were "missing" from the platform, which didn't matter a ton to me because as long as I could use Facebook and the web, I was good (this is mostly still true today).

Over the course of the next three years with that phone, we waited patiently for the next "flagship" hardware, and it finally came as the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, but just before that came something else that finally convinced me it might be time to jump ship.

Google had just launched the Nexus 5X and 6P, made by LG and HTC, but stocked with "pure" Android, which is to say that it was the stock build with no carrier or hardware variations in the OS. They were also unlocked, ready for use on most any network. By this time, Xamarin, not yet acquired by Microsoft, was making real progress at making cross-platform development for Android and iOS awesome, which was also intriguing. The 5X was around $450 unlocked, and was getting rave reviews for its camera, the thing I cared most about. I figured I'd get that phone to play with, for development purposes, and then get the 950 later. I had the Nexus for probably 2 days before I realized I had no need for the Windows Phone. I bought a 5X for Diana as well, and we never looked back.

I despised Android to that point mostly from my experience messing with virtual instances of it on my computer, and from playing with various test phones while at SeaWorld Entertainment, as our mobile apps were coming along. They were all different and kind of clunky compared to iOS, and even further behind Windows Phone. Heck, they were behind what Google had released at any given time, because there were not strong incentives for carriers and manufacturers to update their own builds. But the latest, unmolested bits, the state of the art with solid (if plastic) hardware were not only compelling, but a slam dunk for me. And of course, by then the support for Amazon and Microsoft cloud resources were tip-top, so the Nexus 5X was doing everything I needed and wanted, and then some. I felt silly for holding on to Windows Phone for as long as I did.

As if Google hadn't already been applying their foo to the camera software in an excellent way, they released the Pixel about a year ago with a camera that many declared the best smart phone camera period. It was too expensive at $650 (perhaps to equate its value with the iPhone), but as the photo samples started to appear, especially in low light, I couldn't easily ignore it. Then a co-worker got one, and I was sold.

Microsoft made a ton of mistakes, but I don't think it was the software. I was routinely impressed with how well everything worked together, and the extraordinary customization possible with live tiles. The inter-app sharing that we now take for granted in Android and iOS was already a thing back in 2010 on Windows Phone. But everything beyond the software was less than ideal.

The initial hardware for the first phones was mostly mediocre compared to iPhone and even some of the Motorola phones at the time. Nokia started to make great phones though by late 2011, but carriers didn't know how or why to sell them. If that wasn't bad enough, Microsoft and Nokia made some stupid carrier-exclusive deals that made it worse. I really think that this was the window of opportunity, and they totally dropped the ball with poor marketing and poor sales efforts. If that weren't bad enough, the hardware went nowhere for three years after that before the 950 came out. Samsung was building great phones and people didn't care if it was a year out-of-date, while Apple sucked people into yearly incremental updates. A platform with dwindling developer support and no good hardware had no chance.

It sucks when great products don't take hold, but as a friend of mine pointed out regularly, it's hard to talk people into something when what they're using is meeting their needs. The universe probably didn't need a third platform.

I'm very happy about Google's direction with their platform on their own hardware. It's gonna be hard to resist Pixel 2.


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