The other day someone asked me why I don't make recommendations for Windows Phone handsets in the same way that I cover Android and iOS devices.
Good question. And also a very valid one.
Let me start out by saying that I actually like the Windows Phone platform, and for that matter many of the Windows Phone handsets available. Sure, I think the tile paradigm that infiltrates the operating system gets a little tiresome at times, but I can point to parts of iOS and Android that make me feel the same way.
I also think that having Windows Phone in the mobile space offers the other players some much-needed competition, which isn't a bad thing. The presence of Microsoft in the mobile space – no matter how slight – helps to keep everyone on their collective toes. Also, Windows Phone is currently the only viable third mobile ecosystem since the disintegration of BlackBerry. If you want something other than Android or iOS, then Windows Phone is pretty much all that's on offer.
I'm also someone who had a long and happy history of Nokia handset ownership. I owned a range of Nokia handsets, including the Nokia 9000i, a Nokia 9110i, a Nokia 7110, and a Nokia E72 (which, coincidentally, was the last handset I owned before switching to the iPhone). All were solid handsets – well, OK, maybe not the 7110; I still remember that time the slider flew off the handset while I was answering a call and totally blew away any Neo cool it gave me – and did their job admirably well.
So, given that I like the Windows Phone platform, and am partial to Nokia hardware, then I should be the perfect candidate for a Windows Phone handset.
And yet I don't use one, and I find it almost impossible to recommend that others take the Windows Phone route.
The problem is market share, or Windows Phone's lack of it, and the risk that poses to the future of the platform.
Windows Phone was announced more than four years ago, and made its initial debut in the US in November 2010. And over that time the platform has grown from nothing to grab around 4 percent market share, which compared to the two big players may as well be nothing.
The failure of Windows Phone certainly isn't down to a lack of cash. Microsoft has put a lot of dollars and effort into the platform, even going as far as to buy Finnish handset firm Nokia in order to gain traction in the smartphone space. But despite this huge level of investment ,Windows Phone's usage share has only managed to grow from about one percent to around two percent over the past 12 months.
You could say that over that time the market share has doubled, but you could also say that it's nothing more than a random fluctuation.
Note: No doubt someone will point out how these numbers are not wholly representative, and pull out different numbers, probably showing things in a different light. That may well be the case, but I've yet to see any numbers that suggest that Windows Phone isn't trailing a far third or worse, or that it is gaining significant ground on iOS or Android.
It's pointless debating why Windows Phone hasn't been the hit Microsoft expected it to be. There's been enough finger-pointing at the confusion over the branding, the lack of developer support, Microsoft's lateness to the market with a platform, and the overall lack of visibility of Windows Phone-powered handsets.
What matters is what the future holds for the platform.
The other day, Robert Scoble, who spent three years as Microsoft’s technology evangelist for Windows and who now works at Rackspace as its Startup Liason Officer told GeekWire that "the real answer" for Microsoft is to "give up Windows Phone, go Android."
As far as I can see, the future of Windows Phone is that it will eventually be replaced by Android. In fact – and I don't make bold predictions lightly – I can't see a future where Microsoft doesn't pull the plug on Windows Phone in the next few years and switch to Android. At a time when millions of iOS and Android handsets are being sold every week, Microsoft would need to start shifting tens of millions of handsets every quarter to even twitch the usage share needle.
Without significant market share, Windows Phone is going to suffer as developers focus on more profitable platforms, which is further going to stifle growth. On top of that, I can't see Microsoft choosing to indefinitely support a platform that is languishing in single-digit usage territory.
Given that I feel that Windows Phone could join the Kin and the Zune in Silicon Heaven at any time, it's hard – impossible even – to come up with persuasive reasons to recommend Windows Phone over iOS or Android. That's not me being an iOS or Android fanboy, that's me not being a Windows Phone fanboy and recommending it when I know that it's not the best option.
Unless you have an absolute specific case for using Windows Phone, the iOS or Android is where the apps and the longevity seems to be.
Might Windows Phone gain traction? Sure, anything could happen, but right now that doesn't seem likely, and in the interim I'd be asking people to make a gamble, while at the same time getting less in the way of apps and third-party accessory support.
Since that's not a gamble I'm willing to make with my money, I can't really with clear conscience encourage others to take the leap of faith that Microsoft has what it takes to make the platform successful.
If you're already using Windows Phone and you feel it works for you, then that's great. I'm an advocate of people using what works for them, and I understand that what works for me might not work for others. But I have to be honest and say Windows Phone as it stands right now isn't for me. I don't own a smartphone so I can play with it or use it as a testbed – or as some sort of idol to my fanboyism – I own a smartphone to get work done. And that for me means having the apps to do that, and the confidence that I'm not going to have to switch platforms at some point in the near future.