Windows 10: Microsoft lays its smartphone ambitions to rest

The company wants us to believe that Universal apps — usable on all Windows 10 devices — will save the day for Windows Phone. It’s already clear that won’t be happening.

nokia lumia 520 windows phone 8.1 ru
Credit: Enterely, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia

If there were ever any doubt that Windows Phone is dead, the release of Windows 10 should put them to rest. Microsoft may continue to manufacture smartphones for years, but the devices will always remain barely even also-rans, racking up user share in the low single digits as far as the eye can see.

What does the release of Windows 10 for desktops, laptops and tablets have to do with the end of Windows Phone? Plenty, and not in a place you would expect to look. It’s in the small selection of built-in apps for the operating system.

With Windows 10, Microsoft is creating an architecture in which Windows’ look and feel spans devices. Whether you’re using a desktop, tablet or phone, you’ll see a very similar operating system. That architecture is more than skin deep. What Microsoft calls Universal Windows apps will run on all Windows 10 devices, whether they be desktops, laptops, tablets or smartphones.

Microsoft is betting that those Universal apps will be what saves Windows Phone. Apps sell phones, and one of Windows Phone’s major drawbacks has been that the operating system has far fewer useful apps than iOS and Android. With Windows 10, Universal Windows apps written for traditional computers will also run on phones. And Microsoft believes those Universal Windows apps will draw users to Windows Phone in droves.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made that explicit when he told ZDNet, “The reason why anybody would want to write universal apps is not because of our three percent share in phones. It's because a billion consumers are going to have a Start Menu, which is going to have your app. … If anything, the free upgrade for Windows 10 is meant to improve our phone position. That is the reason why I made that decision. If somebody wants to know whether I'm committed to Windows Phone, they should think about what I just did with the free upgrade to Window.”

Here’s the problem, though: The Windows apps built into Windows 10 are far from spectacular. And other Windows apps you can download from the Windows Store won’t get anyone to switch from iOS or Android to the Windows 10 version of Windows Phone.

Only a handful of Windows apps ship with Windows 10. There’s a useful calendar, a well-done mail app, nice sports, news, and food and drink apps, and a few more as well. They’re all pleasant enough. They’re all useful enough. But I won’t be using any of them on Windows 10, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The mail app isn’t as good as Gmail, especially Google Inbox. I don’t need apps to find news, sports and recipes — I’ve got the Web for that. Google Calendar serves me well, so I don’t need a new calendar. These apps certainly aren’t anything that would make me, or almost anyone else, want to give up an iPhone or Android phone just so I can run them.

Even more to the point, you won’t find new, knock-your-socks-off apps from third-party developers built into Windows 10. And you won’t find them in the Windows Store either. That’s because they don’t exist. Even though Windows has hundreds of millions of users worldwide, and is by far the dominant PC operating system, developers haven’t flocked to write what were once called Metro-style apps (and are now called, among other things, Universal Windows apps). That’s not about to change with Windows 10.

If Microsoft were serious about using Windows 10 to save Windows Phone, the company would have made sure that there were plenty of new apps available for Windows 10 at launch, to drum up interest in Windows Phone when the Windows 10 update comes to mobile. That didn’t happen.

The few Microsoft-created apps and applications that might draw people to Windows Phone are available or will soon be available on iOS and Android. Office already runs on those operating systems. The digital assistant built into Windows 10, Cortana, will as well.

If you want to see the future of Windows Phone, follow the money, not Nadella’s public Windows 10 pronouncements. In early July, Microsoft wrote off $7.6 billion in losses because of its acquisition of Nokia — almost the entire value of the Nokia purchase. Last year, Microsoft laid off 18,000 employees, mainly related to Nokia. This year, it’s laying off another 7,800, primarily from its phone business.

That’s $7.6 billion and more than 25,000 layoffs. And that, more than vague hopes that developers will hustle to write Windows 10 Universal Windows apps, shows the future of Windows Phone.

This story, "Windows 10: Microsoft lays its smartphone ambitions to rest" was originally published by Computerworld.

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