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Whatever Happened to Windows Mobile?

Since I have already written well over ten thousand words fisking Corliss Lamont’s SJW idiocy, I decided to take a break and write about another subject that I greatly enjoy, technology. Today we will be taking a brief, high-level look at the rise and fall Windows Mobile, a formerly influential market leader, now fallen on hard times. Along with Blackberry (another good article awaits there), Microsoft’s platform has a long and storied history, but is now essentially irrelevant, a footnote in the current market of smartphones, one that is dominated by the twin titans of Apple and Android.  

As of Q3 2016, Microsoft’s worldwide share of the massive global smartphone market sits at a dismal 0.7 percent. As recently as last year, Microsoft still commanded around 2.5 percent market share, but even that small fraction of the market was greater than could be sustained by Microsoft. All that Microsoft can say these days is that they are selling more phones than the struggling Blackberry corporation is, but beating a rival who only has 0.2 percent of the market is hardly an accomplishment. What happened? Today we will be looking at a brief overview of Microsoft’s two decades plus in the handheld market, and how they went from major player to a rounding error.

The Pre-iPhone Era
Prior to the game-changing introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Microsoft had a significant market share of the nascent smartphone market, reaching a peak of 42 percent of the US market in 2007. Not coincidentally ,this was the year that marked the release of Apple’s game changer, the iPhone. Along with Blackberry, Microsoft never recovered from the launch of the iPhone colossus and its market share steadily dwindled down to the present day, where it sits at less than one percent.

However, up to this point, Microsoft had enjoyed a very successful market position, one that had started back in the pre-smartphone era, the era of the Palm or palmtop computer, depending on whose marketing was being read. The Palm or palmtop computers were portable organizers, the precursors of today’s smartphones. Slow and clumsy by today’s standards, and lacking any sort of wireless data connection, they nonetheless played an important part in switching professionals away from the world of Filofax organizers and other analog ways of organization, and towards a digital world.  Ironically, Apple itself was hugely influential in this new shift in thinking.

In the early 90s, Apple, not for the last time, created an entirely new product niche that, again not for the first time, was exploited by others far more effectively. After pushing Steve Jobs out of the company in the late 80s, Apple was beginning to flounder as its market share continued to erode underneath the constant assault of cheap, “good enough” Windows machines. Looking to start a new category of devices that Apple could then own, then CEO of Apple John Sculley announced that Apple was working on a new, portable computer called the Newton. Inspired by a conceptual Apple internal video about a device called the “Knowledge Navigator”, the Newton was meant to be an on-the-go device that could manage a calendar, send faxes through any available phone line (this was a big thing in the 90s), store and dial contacts (done by holding the Newton’s speaker near a phone’s mouthpiece while it “dialed” by playing the correct key tones into the microphone) and perform a variety of useful computing functions for the mobile businessman.   
John Sculley called the Newton a “Personal Digital Assistant”, or PDA for short, and heavily hyped it up with Apple’s always excellent PR machine. Unfortunately, Apple’s engineers had bit off far more than they could chew, as they struggled to cram everything into the Newton. Finally released in 1993, the Apple Newton was a brilliant achievement in many ways, but was slow, costly, and not terribly portable, being roughly the size of a VHS tape. The product would limp along for a few years, with a number of further improvements made and cost reductions, however just as it seemed the Newton might finally be getting some traction...Jobs came back to Apple and shut the Newton project down in 1998 as part of his refocusing and streamlining Apple.    

In the meantime, there had been a massive rush of companies that all were attempting to get their own PDAs into the marketplace, which was expected to be massive. All of them pretty much failed to gain traction, other than a little company’s product known as the “Palm Pilot.” Focusing on doing one thing well, instead of many things poorly, entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins designed a small, very portable, device that fit into a standard shirt pocket, and allowed the user to do a few tightly focused things very well. Things like calendar tracking, desktop synchronization, contacts, and a few basic extensions of that general idea.

WinCE The Dubious Joys of Windows 95, Now Even Slower
The little Palm Pilot was a huge hit, going on to grab the vast majority of the PDA market. And it is around this time that Microsoft began to make a huge play for the market. Planned to make an appearance in 1997, the new Windows CE palmtops that Microsoft debuted represented the antithesis of the little Palm. Microsoft had decided that Palm’s approach of focusing on simplicity and doing a few things very well was vulnerable to an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to product development. Nevermind the fact that every single previous attempt to create a PDA that took this approach had failed, the highest profile being the ill-fated Apple Newton and the precursor to the Palm, the Zoomer.

As usual, Microsoft stayed out of manufacturing hardware, and just developed the software, licensing it out to manufacturers such as HP, Phillips, and Casio. This strategy had proven very successful with computers and Microsoft saw no reason why it wouldn’t work just as well for PDAs and pocket computers. They were an attempt to shoehorn Windows 95 into a handheld, right down to the start menu. Packed full of features and with a tremendous amount of press support, they suffered much the same fate as the Newton, being slow and overpriced, with a confusing array of features and the usual Microsoft share of bugs. A universally short battery life didn’t help either. Microsoft ended 1997 with a mere 20 percent of the PDA market.

But as usual, Microsoft didn’t let that stop them from continually trying to improve and develop their platform. In 2001, Microsoft launched Pocket PC 2002, a major overhaul of the system and one that found its way onto a few cell phones, where the ability to make and receive calls was grafted onto the main PDA. These early devices were somewhat clunky, although that was par for the course in the early years of PDA/Smartphone integration. For example, Blackberry’s first attempt at that particular hybrid resulted in a device that required the user to plug in a headset before he was able to make and receive calls, as the device had no built in mic.  

The Windows Mobile naming was launched in 2003 when Pocket PC 2002 gave way to Windows Mobile 2003. Over the next few years, Microsoft steadily worked on the system, adding new features such as the ability to tie the device to an Exchange server for push email (launched with Windows Mobile 5, 2005) and cleaning up the system with bug fixes. Throughout the process, some things stayed consistent across all versions, specifically the fact that Windows Mobile devices all used a stylus as the primary input method for the user. Windows Mobile’s scaled down Windows interface (interface was based variously on Windows 95, 98, and XP, although the underlying code was a completely different kernel entirely) was too crowded with icons and scaled down Windows interface features to allow for input using something as relatively imprecise as a finger, which forced the point of a stylus as the only feasible method of interacting with the OS.

The Apple iGorilla
The iPhone launch in 2007 caught Microsoft completely off guard. Along with everyone else of course, Google had been about to release the first Android phone, a boxy looking affair with a keyboard that looked very similar to the then in vogue Blackberrys. After watching the Apple iPhone keynote, they realized that they could no longer release the product, and thus canceled it in favor of an approach far closer to the iPhone. Which resulted in a massive lawsuit of course, but that is another story. Windows Mobile was a very mature product by this time, but it was still extremely clunky and not enjoyable to use. Very feature rich, but with a paucity of user feedback evident in the clunky interface.   

Changes were made with Windows Mobile 6.5, as a result of contending with the new paradigms of touch computing introduced by Apple and rapidly being implemented by the newcomer on the block, Android. This resulted in Windows 6.5 being the victim of a botched plastic software surgery, that attempted to graft a somewhat finger friendly interface onto the aging OS. This Frankenstein approach was unsatisfactory and half-baked, resulting in Microsoft throwing away much of the existing Windows Mobile and starting over.

In 2010, under the increasing twin attacks of the iPhone and the rapidly rising Android, Microsoft made the decision to jettison its existing code base and launch a brand new Windows Mobile version, 7.0. This new system was built on an entirely different underlying architecture, which not only resulted in a cleaner code base moving forward, but allowed for true native touch computing to finally arrive on the Windows platform, as opposed to a crude jerry rig. Unfortunately, Windows Mobile was completely incompatible with the existing Windows Mobile 6.5 devices, the owners of which had no upgrade path whatsoever, outside of buying a new phone outright.  Not for the first time, Microsoft slapped its existing loyal users in the face.

Windows Mobile 7 received several major updates over the course of its lifespan, 7.5 added a number of features such as copy and paste that had been inexplicably absent from the initial release. To all the Apple haters out there, I am fully aware that the iPhone OS lacked copy and paste in its initial release as well. However, there is a vast difference between starting an entirely new product category that one can then grow in and dominate, versus an underdog attempting to make headway into a highly competitive market with multiple players...while lacking a number of basic features that competitors already possess. Such as copy and paste. Windows Mobile 7.0 actually lacked features that the pre-iPhone Windows Mobile possessed. Microsoft entered a brutal arena battle with one hand tied behind its back. Windows Mobile 7’s good ideas (and there were a number of them) were not enough to gain any traction in the marketplace. So Microsoft once again decided to fix this issue by slapping its loyal users in the face.

Windows Phone 8 launched in 2012. A new approach for the struggling platform , it represented a step towards Microsoft’s goal of having its mobile OS and desktop OS be much closer to unified. It also yet again broke compatibility with the existing Windows Mobile codebase, whose users were forced to buy an entirely new phone if they wanted the shiny new OS. Some did. Some kept their existing Windows phones. (Many) others began to look at applier and googlier pastures.  Additionally, Microsoft had gone from having a plethora of hardware partners to build devices for Windows Mobile having only four show any interest in making Windows Mobile 8 phones. And of these four, only Nokia invested any amount of effort and time into its devices. The less said about Huawei and HTC’s attempts, the better.

Windows Mobile 8 was significant however, in that with it Microsoft finally got completely away from the aging Windows CE kernel that it had used and built on since the start of the PDA era, and switched Windows Mobile 8 to the NT kernel that has been the bedrock of Windows since Windows 2000 (although most people experienced its relative stability  for the first time with Windows XP). That said, Windows Mobile 8 brought very little new to Windows Mobile on the surface, as most of its changes were invisible to the user. This also meant that the platform continued to stagnate and users continued to migrate to Android and Apple. Microsoft could only console itself with the thought that Blackberry wasn't doing any better.

Finally, with the release of Windows 10 Mobile in 2015, Microsoft essentially fully converged its mobile and its desktop OSes, a long time goal of the company. Unfortunately, by this point few people cared at all about a platform that was only a bare fraction of the market. Carriers weren’t particularly interested in spending money to promote the pitiful few new Windows 10 Mobile devices, and Microsoft did itself no favors by making its new Windows 10 phones AT&T exclusives. Yes they were technically available directly through the Microsoft store (both online and in the physical stores), but in practice for most people, the only way to get one was through AT&T. And unlike the iPhone exclusive that AT&T had, the Windows Phone exclusive did nothing for AT&T and as a result got little to no coverage and advertising.

While the new Lumia's are capable of some neat tricks, especially with Continuum enabling them to function as a sort of ersatz Windows 10 laptop (if you buy an expensive dock, and for some reason carry a keyboard and mouse with you everywhere you go), it simply isn't (and wasn't) enough to drive any sort of widespread adoption. In possibly one of the best examples of faint praise for a product, Ars Technica called the Lumia 950 a perfectly adequate phone.

The Nokia Acquisition
Regressing back to 2013, for 7.1 billion dollars Microsoft had bought Nokia’s Devices and Services division (one of the two divisions that Nokia was split into, the other half still operates today as its own entity) and brought phone hardware production theoretically inhouse. Theoretically. At this point, Nokia was the only major manufacturer of Windows phones(controlling about 90 percent of that particular Easy-Bake pie), and had seen some success with its Lumia series, a lineup of brightly colored Windows phones that typically boasted some impressive camera specs, even by today’s standards(40+ megapixels were available on some Lumia’s complete with Carl Zeiss lenses). Sadly, the software support was never very good, but they were the only remaining refuge for the battered Windows phones holdouts.

My personal 0.02 cents on the acquisition is that Microsoft was looking to jump forward in its R&D for its new Windows Mobile 10 phones, as they gained an entire ready to go phone team, with its members used to working with each other and (theoretically) well positioned to close the gap with Android and Apple. It also gave Microsoft in-house control of hardware, something that only Apple (and I guess Blackberry...which by this point was collapsing faster than Microsoft was) was able to do up until this point. Additionally of course, Microsoft gained a valuable treasure trove of patents from its acquisition, as Nokia’s war chest of patents, while undoubtedly not as substantial as Motorola’s, are still very impressive.

Sadly for Microsoft, the acquisition was one of the most disastrous in the history of corporate mergers, with the majority of the 15000 employees that Microsoft cut from 2014 forward coming from Nokia. In 2015, Microsoft was forced to take a write down of 7.6 billion dollars, thanks to the botched merger. Microsoft should have done all the work in-house, rather than through attempting a kludge like merging Nokia's R&D with Microsoft's. While the savings would have been in the billions, I still suspect that the end would have been the same. The Android/Apple giant is simply to large to overcome and the US smartphone market only has room for two major players.

The End Draws Near   
Today Microsoft commands less than one percent of the smartphone market. Its phones are hardly seen, and the shiny new Windows Lumia 950 seems poised to go down the same road as the ill-fated Zune did. Absent a miracle, Microsoft will either limp along like Blackberry does, relying on their few die hard users to keep afloat and maintain at least a toehold in the market. Or they will do as they did with the Zune, and pull the plug completely.

If the latter eventuality happens, I foresee the Lumia line finding a beloved nostalgic niche for some, just as the Zune does today. And it will be lauded for some creative ideas (Continuum for one) that just never proved sufficient enough to attract a large enough crowd of users.

Thanks for reading.



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