What is (still) wrong with Microsoft's Windows Phone strategy

Windows Phone 8 has been available on the market since late-October, 2012. That makes it more than a year old in human time and quite a bit older in tech years. So far, I've been through two smartphones running the tiled operating system -- the HTC Windows Phone 8X (in an insanely gorgeous purple) and Nokia Lumia 920 (the boring "businessman-black" version as I like to call it). There is also a Lumia 520 nearby (in a nice shade of red), that I use from time to time to gauge how it gets along with Windows Phone 8 and various new apps.

I have been playing with three important handsets that are available under the Windows Phone 8 umbrella, in order to discover the benefits and the downsides of the platform as well as get an idea of the direction Microsoft wanted to impose for its latest attempt to make great strides in the smartphone OS market. On paper, the software giant only wants the best for Windows Phone, but in practice there are still a couple of bad points about its strategy that indicate, to a certain degree, smartphones are not really a priority for the Redmond, Wash.-based company.

The Smartphone Market

Before I explain the chinks in the armor, let us take a quick look at the state of the smartphone market and analyze the platform's two main rivals, namely Android and iOS (the iPhones).

Since Windows Phone 8 arrived, Google has released two major updates for its smartphone operating system: Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and Android 4.4 KitKat. Both versions have refined the user experience and introduced new features, adding on top of what Android 4.2 Jelly Bean offered (that OS was officially announced on the same day Windows Phone 8 launched, but with a more mature feature set). Google also released minor bug fixes in the meantime.

On the iPhone side of things, Apple has also released two major updates for its smartphone operating system -- iOS 6.1 and iOS 7 -- in the same respective time-frame. The former did not add major features, but the latter has introduced significant changes to the overall user experience and feature set. Apple is still visibly working to improve iOS 7, through a number of minor updates.

In reality, that is what Windows Phone 8 is up against -- two platforms that are very high on the priority list of their respective makers. Microsoft's smartphone OS cannot be truly assessed without also looking at the competition.

So Where Is Windows Phone 8.1?

It's customary for Apple and Google to release two notable updates for their smartphone OSs in the course of a year. Both companies have done this, as I explained above. Meanwhile, Microsoft launched Windows Phone 8 more than a year ago and has yet to release the next big thing since.

At the time of writing this article, there are only three minor updates available for Windows Phone 8 which either add catch-up features or fix what was broken. And the third update is not even officially being rolled-out to most compatible smartphones. Nokia, for instance, plans to release the Nokia Black update, which incorporates Windows Phone 8 Update 3, in early 2014 for its pre-Lumia 1520 devices which are virtually used by its entire customer base.

We are still waiting for Windows Phone 8.1 to arrive and, by the looks of it, it is highly unlikely that the new operating system will be launched anytime this year. And, as is usually the case with these sort of launches, by the time it hits the market there is a very good chance that both Android and iOS will have a significant lead (my estimate for Windows Phone 8.1 launch is after MWC 2014, which would give the Lumia 1520 and Lumia 1320 some time to breathe) in both sales and perception.

Reactive, Not Proactive

Famous hockey player Wayne Gretzky is quoted for saying "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been" and "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be". The man was talking about hockey, but his statements can be extrapolated to the smartphone market as well, where Microsoft is the best example for the player that doesn't get the game.

Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft's reaction to older versions of Android and iOS. It was lacking important features last year, a situation which has been made worse by the passing of time. And, unless we are talking with fanboys, power users would agree that the few differentiating factors it has -- live tiles, simplicity, clean design -- are not enough to make up for the long list of yet unaddressed shortcomings and future-proofing in an already lacking smartphone OS.

Microsoft is playing catch-up with Windows Phone, and until the company figures out how to get ahead of the game it will have to settle with the title of the "fastest growing major smartphone platform" that less than four percent of the market prefers. Some call that an asterisk title. It should have been a wake up call a long time ago. It is not, even now.

Foggy Path Ahead

Probably without even realizing, Microsoft is shooting itself in the foot. I honestly would not be surprised to learn that this is true. When the company's executive vice-president of Devices and Studios Julie Larson-Green said "We have the Windows Phone OS. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows. We're not going to have three", she was basically casting doubt over the company's strategy for Windows Phone and Windows RT, two operating systems that have the ARM architecture in common. One has to go.

The obvious choice is to get rid of Windows RT if Microsoft only wants to have two products for PCs, tablets and smartphones, but by not saying which one will go away the company is not doing itself any favors.

It is highly unlikely that Microsoft will get rid of Windows Phone, seeing as it's its most popular modern platform for app developers. But, it could also mean that the software giant will try to shake things up again, like it did with Windows Phone 7 (moved to a new design from Windows Mobile, losing features along the way) and Windows Phone 8 (is not compatible with Windows Phone 7 devices, also losing features -- like FM Radio -- for a while), by introducing yet another period of transition between where the OS is now and where Microsoft wants it to be in a couple of years. It's never about making things good now, but about making them better down the road. That's a recipe for anonymity (less than four percent market share in Q3 2013, according to Gartner, warrants this assessment).

One can never know what Microsoft has in mind when it comes to smartphones. This has to change. Microsoft has to choose a path and stick to it.

Late Hardware Support

Microsoft's reactive strategy also meant that Windows Phone 8 was always a step behind when it comes to supporting the latest hardware. The operating system launched on devices sporting Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processors (dual-core) and 720p displays, which made them underpowered in contrast to Android flagships sporting the quad-core version of the processor. Not long after its launch (in early 2013), Android makers moved to quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processors and 1080p displays, while Windows Phone 8 remained stuck on the old hardware.

It took Microsoft more than nine months to add support for Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 (that, admittedly, arrived later than the Snapdragon 600 even though it was also announced in January 2013 at CES) and 1080p displays in Windows Phone 8. At least it's up to par. For now.

Next year, Qualcomm will undoubtedly launch a new processor generation that is even faster than before and there are already quad HD (2560 by 1440 resolution) displays announced. Will people have a need for either of the two? Probably not. Will people want them? If they're available, then why not? Will Microsoft support them in Windows Phone? Probably not, not at first anyway (probably close to a year later, if history is any indication).

Microsoft has to be a forward-thinking smartphone OS developer that is actively looking to support new hardware because, let's face it, specs do sell smartphones nowadays, even if it is to a niche of the buyers market.

Vision

Probably the biggest problem that Microsoft has been having with its Windows Phone strategy is the lack of vision. The software giant could not commit to sticking to a path, and it lacked the guts to shake things up when it most mattered.

Microsoft changed its mind about Windows Phone twice, in just two major releases (out of two), instead of kicking off with a future-proofed one, sticking with it and making it better down the road. Windows Phone could have been significantly more popular nowadays if the company's upper management was in touch with what people have been wanting since Apple debuted the iPhone. Windows Phone 8 proved that is not the case, once again.

Apple got smartphones in 2007 with the original iPhone. Meanwhile, Steve Ballmer was laughing at the concept, blinded by the apparent success Windows Mobile actually had. Has that mentality helped? Because I don't think it has, looking at market share and where the competition is nowadays. Keep in mind that Ballmer still rules at Microsoft after looking like a buffoon. The results are visible from afar.

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