While the Surface line continues to soar, Microsoft's Lumia phones have cratered. We're talking about a big 73 percent drop in sales year over year, according to Microsoft's latest quarterly report. That's prompted a number of pundits to declare that Windows Phone is a dead platform. And now Microsoft has announced that it's laying off 1,850 (opens in new tab) as it attempts to "streamline" its smartphone hardware business.
But here's the problem: You can't pronounce Windows 10 Phones DOA until after Microsoft introduces a Surface phone — and only if that rumored device flops, too.
Proclaiming Windows is dead is like saying Tom Brady can't dance. Maybe he can, maybe he can't, but really, we just don't know. And if the performance of ex-NFLers like Emmitt Smith and Hines Ward on Dancing with the Stars is any indication, the leader of The Brady Bunch might actually have some pretty sweet moves.
The Promise of Windows 10 Mobile
Microsoft has released just a handful of phones in the last six months: the Lumia 950 and 950 XL back in October, and the Lumia 650 in March. So it's not really a shocker that Microsoft hasn't sold a ton of Windows phones — the company isn't even trying. And according to Executive Vice President of Windows and Devices Group Terry Myerson, that lack of focus on Windows 10 phones is something that will carry on until at least 2017.
Ironically, Microsoft's Windows 10 Mobile platform is actually the system closest to delivering on the smartphone dream: a single device that can connect seamlessly to all the screens and peripherals you use on a daily basis. Right now, a Lumia 950XL functions just fine as a smartphone when you're out and about. And with Microsoft's desktop-like Continuum feature, the Lumia is a way better productivity device than an Android phone or tablet when hooked up to the same peripherals.
HP is even working on a Windows phone called the Elite X3 that that could possibly replace a laptop. So instead of the trying to issue death certificates, just sit back and give Microsoft a chance, because if the company continues to expand on Continuum, Windows 10 phone could become the true PC in your pocket that sci-fi writers and tech pundits have been talking about for decades.
Closing the App Gap
To be clear, Microsoft has a steep uphill battle. Its No. 1 problem right now is app parity. When push comes to shove, developers wait until much later to work on a Windows universal app than they do with the Android or iOS versions — if they even bother to do it at all.
"It's a chicken-and-egg scenario," said Mary-Jo Foley from Allaboutmicrosoft.com. "Devs are worried about committing to a platform with little market share. But a big reason for the low market share is the app gap.
"Microsoft needs to lessen the app gap enough so that I don't have to worry every time I need an app — especially a local/regionally focused one," she added.
And Foley should know; she recently switched over to an Android-powered Nexus 6P after owning nothing but Windows phones since 2008, due in large part to poor app availability. So even though the same apps from the Windows Store on desktops will also work on your phone, Microsoft still needs to provide developers a greater incentive to move Windows higher up on their priority lists.
A few big-name apps, like Netflix, Facebook and Twitter, have recently updated their apps to better work across all Windows devices, and others, including Vine and Reddit, are on the way. The future looks a tiny bit brighter for Microsoft. However, if Microsoft doesn't start doing a better job of curating its store, the company's growing catalog of apps could become the same hard-to-navigate mess Google Play and Apple's App Store have turned into.
And let's not forget about the untapped potential of a real Xbox app for Windows Phones, or the impact HoloLens might have on Microsoft’s mobile OS when it's finally ready for market.
Surface Phone to the Rescue?
Hardware poses another problem for Microsoft's mobile efforts. If Microsoft wants to succeed, the company will have to build a phone that's as good as or better than what Apple, Google and Samsung are doing. Dan Rubino of Windows Central said a Surface Phone can't afford to just be a premium device with a sleek design. "What Microsoft needs to do with the Surface Phone is change the game like it did with the Surface Pro, which was so innovative it provided solutions to problems we didn't even know we had," he said.
Foley said she'd like to see Microsoft emulate Google's Nexus phones. "Microsoft needs to make top-of-the-line hardware that can work on all carriers, and sell unlocked phones to us," she said. "I would be much more interested in Surface Phone if it had keyboard advances beyond what's on other phones."
So what would a potential Surface Phone look like? Based on current rumors, the Surface Phone will feature a Qualcomm Snapdragon 830 processor and at least 4GB of RAM. And if it's like the Surface Pro series, it will probably pack a high-resolution screen. But if you're expecting the Surface Phone to be a real competitor to the iPhone or Galaxy S phone, you may be a bit disappointed, at least at first.
Based on talks with Microsoft insiders, Rubino predicted that the Surface phone will feature deep stylus integration and will target business users instead of typical consumers. That would make it more of a Galaxy Note rival, although the concerns remain that even if the Surface Phone is a success, it might not be enough to keep Windows Phone alive.
In a day and age when too many products are half-baked and poorly equipped, it's not a bad thing that Microsoft wants to make sure the Surface phone comes out right. This shows that Microsoft is willing to take some lumps in order to get there. Strong competition is an important part of a healthy mobile landscape, and I remain hopeful that we'll get a true third horse in the smartphone wars. But if the Surface phone doesn't impress, then it really may be RIP for Windows 10 Mobile.