Windows Phone is Microsoft's latest attempt at a mobile operating system and is a follow on to Windows Mobile (which itself dated back to the days of Windows CE). The first incarnation of Windows Phone — Windows Phone 7 — was launched in October 2010, and the latest release — Windows Phone 8.1 — is currently being pushed out to Windows Phone 8 handsets.
Microsoft has put a lot of dollars and effort into Windows Phone, even going as far as to buy Finnish handset firm Nokia in order to gain traction in the smartphone space. But despite this investment Windows Phone's usage share has grown 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.
So what's wrong with Windows Phone?
I have a few suggestions.
The Windows brand is currently tainted by Windows 8
There's little doubt that Windows 8 isn't feeling the love from users that Microsoft had expected it to get. While Windows 7 and the now obsolete Windows XP command a desktop market share of 50 percent and 25 percent respectively, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 command between them about 12.5 percent market share.
People don't like Windows 8 for a variety of reasons, and I have little doubt that this is tarnishing Windows Phone 8 too.
That's one of the risks of aligning brands — if one product is a dud, it taints the others.
There's little room for a third player
Between iOS and Android, there's not a lot of space left in the market for a third player.
With Apple selling millions of iPhones a quarter, and Google seeing 1.5 million new device activations daily, Microsoft has to put tens of millions of devices in the hands of users to even twitch the needle.
Poor developer support
One of the biggest drivers of the mobile ecosystem is apps. The problem facing Windows Phone is that developers are busy prioritizing iOS and Android because that's where the bulk of the users are.
Lack of apps is probably the single biggest problem facing Windows Phone, and it's the hardest to fix because developers follow where the users are, but users want apps, and so the platform is caught in the middle.
Throw on top of this the thousands of abandoned apps, and a thick strata of junk apps, and that adds up to a huge app problem.
People want what they see other people using
And they don't see people using Windows Phone. It's clear that Microsoft has also tried to redress this issue by paying for clunky, awkward product placement in TV shows, but so far this isn't translating into increased market share.
People like to choose what they see others with. They feel validated when they choose Android or iOS because they see plenty of others having made the same choice. They don't get that from Windows Phone.
Too few handset choices
Unless you fancy a smartphone made by Nokia or HTC, you're pretty much outta luck. Or, to put that another way, Windows Phone is too heavily reliant on Nokia. That said, had Microsoft not acquired the Finnish firm, Windows Phone's position would by now be dire indeed.
Apple can get away with pushing a single brand, but Microsoft doesn't have the market clout to be able to pull that off.
More handsets from more manufacturers are coming, but when, and how effective they will be, remains in doubt.
Consumers feel that choosing Microsoft is a gamble
Microsoft has left a trail of devastation in its wake in the consumer electronics space. Products like Zune and Kin that vanished as fast as they appeared didn't just represent huge cash losses for Microsoft, but they also severely dented fanboy consumer confidence.
On several occasions I've seen Microsoft take the wrong approach with Windows Phone. It concentrated on better camera hardware than helping people take better photos. It focused on the tile interface rather than on what ties offered.
Windows Phone still far from maturity
Even Windows Phone 8.1 is far from being a well-rounded, mature platform. Here are just a few problems:
- The tile interface is still clumsy to navigate.
- Sharing is limited to certain files.
- The video player doesn't support some popular formats, such as MKV. What users really need here is a good third-party option, but that doesn't exist.
- Action Center is clunky and broken.
Microsoft is in reaction mode
Microsoft's mobile strategy doesn't seem ready for a smartwatch, but pressure from other players means it has little choice but to devote cash and resources to developing one.
The Nokia X strategy, where it has chosen to adopt Android but skin it to look like Windows Phone 8 and use Microsoft services over Google offerings, highlights how confused Microsoft is in that it's willing to dilute the Windows Phone ecosystem in exchange for increased share in developing countries.
This move has also raised the possibility in people's minds that Microsoft could adopt or even switch to Android, which could dampen sales of Windows Phone even further.