Speed is the key: How Windows Phone jumped ahead of BlackBerry

Speed is the key: How Windows Phone jumped ahead of BlackBerry

Summary: Microsoft and BlackBerry took the same approach to evolving their smartphones strategies – but Microsoft was faster off the blocks and that matters.


BlackBerry and Microsoft have faced the same challenges when trying to evolve their smartphone and tablet offerings, but the different results they've achieved shows the importance of acting decisively and fast: as Windows Phone inches forward, BlackBerry has said it is now considering "strategic options" which may involve the sale of the company.

A few years back both recognised they had to move off platforms that were being rapidly eclipsed by newer competition: Microsoft needed credible tablets and smartphones to round out its portfolio, while  BlackBerry needed to replace the operating system that made it the number one business smartphone and gave it huge consumer sales — at least before the iPhone and Android came along.

Both companies started work on new platforms to help them shift to a new generation of hardware. They both made similar decisions and Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10 (and Windows RT) share a lot of design principles: HTML5 is key, touch and gestures are the way forward and an interface designed for touch has to move away from the menus and toolbars and mouse habits of the past. The idea of an immersive experience for the user, with distractions kept to a minimum, was another concept in common.

And they're all based on a kernel from an operating system that started out on what we used to think of as a 'real computer' rather than a phone.

Microsoft wanted to have your Start screen light up with your photos and with updates from your friends and family (the Windows Phone People hub does a good job of this). BlackBerry built the social networking features of Gist right into its email and contacts so you could get straight from a friend's email to see what they've been up to online.

And beyond the interface, BlackBerry and Microsoft have similar ambitions for the scope and scale of their platforms. It's a shame that BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins has been so restrained talking about his vision of mobile computing, where your smartphone is at the heart of experiences shared with the processing power in your car or with other phones (using the ability of QNX to add and remove remote resources as they were on the same device). Imagine a way to project that onto a large screen on the wall or onto a tablet.

Compare that to the Microsoft Envisioning Center video of small, medium and large screens and Steven Sinofsky's vision at Build 2011: "We envision an OS that scales from small form factor keyboardless tablets all the way up to the high end." For all their differences, Microsoft and BlackBerry see the future in similar ways.

But Microsoft started earlier, getting Windows Phone on the market a lot faster by getting to a new OS in two stages, adding key principles such as GPU acceleration and a decent browser to its existing Windows CE platform, with a compelling new interface, keep adding extra features — and then swap out the guts for a new OS platform based on the Windows NT kernel.

The plan gave Microsoft a head start over BlackBerry, which had to go out and buy QNX to get the basis of a new operating system. The plan was for rapid development, with the OS getting tried out on a tablet and following on phones when the kinks were worked out. That took almost three years; the PlayBook was announced in October 2010, shipped in April 2011 and wasn't followed by a BlackBerry 10 handset until January 2013.

Windows Phone came out in November 2010 and Windows Phone 8 launched two years later (a couple of days after Windows RT and three months before the first BB10 phone).

Three years is about the time it takes to build a new OS (Windows 8 planning started five months before Windows 7 shipped, for example). but even with a great developer relations team keeping BlackBerry developers surprisingly happy while they waited for broadband 10, it's a very long time to wait when iOS and Android get new versions every year.

Five alternative futures for BlackBerry

Five alternative futures for BlackBerry

Five alternative futures for BlackBerry

Microsoft was able to move faster on smaller features too. Both companies saw computational photography as an ideal tool for smartphones; picking from multiple exposures to get the best version of your photo, for example. We saw both Nokia and BlackBerry demonstrate this; the Lens feature in the Windows Phone 8 camera let Nokia get this out quickly but BlackBerry had to wait for BB10 to ship in the first place.

That head start let Microsoft mop up customers who might have gone to BlackBerry 10.

You can also see it in market share in markets like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand where Windows Phone now has 20 percent of the market; Indonesia is a former BlackBerry stronghold where Android only passed BlackBerry's 50 percent market share in late 2012. In the UK, Windows Phone is growing almost as fast as BlackBerry is declining; Kantar says the Windows Phone 8.6 percent share of sales in Q2 2013 is a 4.1 percentage point increase over Q2 2012, with BlackBerry dropping 6.5 points to 4.1 percent. In France it's BlackBerry down 7.4 points, Windows Phone up 6.7 points to 9 percent. The 22.9 percentage points BlackBerry lost in Mexico went mostly to Android but Windows Phone gained 5.1 points for a 7 percent share of sales. Even in the US, where Windows Phone struggles the most, Windows Phone now has the 4 percent sales share that BlackBerry had in Q2 2012 and BlackBerry has fallen to a painful 1.1 percent.  

Overall, BlackBerry share is dropping — from 6.8 percent of worldwide sales  in Q1 2012 to 3 percent in Q1 2013 — while Windows Phone share is rising — from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent over the same year, even though BlackBerry shipped slightly more units. The only mobile OS losing share faster is Symbian, dropping from 8.5 percent to 0.6 percent.

It's an interesting thought experiment to consider how well Windows RT would have done if it had come out at the same time as the first Android tablets rather than just after the iPad Mini.

Microsoft is a much larger company than BlackBerry with lots of different revenue streams that give it the opportunity to keep pushing Windows RT (even discounting QNX's strong position in the automotive market), and at least one unique asset to drive sales on Windows 8 and RT: Office.

BlackBerry's closest equivalent is BBM, but again, bringing BBM to Android and iOS to make the BBM community more valuable was a good idea executed just too slowly to make a difference.

It's a shame; unlike HP who took far too long to ship a Palm OS device and only produced a disappointingly heavy and underpowered tablet, BlackBerry 10 is a great product that was worth waiting for.

It even had unprecedented support from the carriers; I've never heard of a mobile operator volunteering to keep its testing lab open over Christmas the way one UK carrier did for the Z10.

That begs the question of how any product can compete with iOS and Android unless it's backed by a company with the finances of a Microsoft that lets it keep plugging away to get a credible third place.

Still, if BlackBerry can go private or find a sympathetic buyer, that might give the company one more chance to prove they're not always too late to the party.

Further reading

Topics: BlackBerry, Smartphones, Windows Phone

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Huge kudos to Nokia and Microsoft

    My Nokia Lumia 920 was the very best phone in the world when it came out and has only been surpassed by subsequent Lumia releases.
  • Had BB OS 7.1

    Now I have Lumia 920. NEVER going back to BB.
  • Not HTML5 on Windows Phone

    Slight correction...while Windows Phone does have an HTML5 capable web browser, the core application platform is based on a combination of .NET and native C++ technologies, a variation of both Silverlight and the WinRT framework on full Windows 8. HTML5 is not core to that, at least not at this point in time (although I'm sure they will also add built in HTML5 application support in the future, as full Windows 8 includes).
    • IE 11

      Has full HTML5 support I believe.
      widow maker
      • IE 10, but...

        Windows Phone 8 runs IE 10, which as I mentioned does support HTML5 (or at least a significant portion of it). Still, browser is only one application on the platform. The article implies HTML5 was central to the platform itself, which is not really accurate at this time. It's perhaps a small distinction, but I think an important one.
    • HTML5 options

      Certainly Windows 8/RT has far more HTML5 powering it (it's all accelerated by Chakra, for one thing); but for WP specifically you've got the option of the WebBrowser control in your apps, which can "display richly formatted HTML content from either a remote web server or locally generated code. You can also store content in your app's isolated storage area and display content from there. Rich content can also contain script code and communicate between the script and your app's managed code layer". http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsphone/develop/ff431797(v=vs.105).aspx
      It's not at the level of the BBUI emulation of Cascades on BB10, but I think it is one of the important platform components.
      • Re: which can "display richly formatted HTML content

        Big deal http://developer.android.com/reference/android/webkit/WebView.html

        And note that "Added in API Level 1": it's been in Android from the beginning.
  • Slight correction

    Windows Phone 8 runs IE10 which DOES support many stable HTML5 features.
    • Not really the nature of the discussion

      Yes, WP8 can visit forward looking websites. But the lead comment's point still stands. There's a viewer, but not too much in the way of a development model based on it at this time... though I gather there's some PhoneGap hackery that might let you do it.
  • BB's mistake

    Was in not adopting WP a couple of years ago as Nokia did. This would have allowed them to offload development cost, get a partner to share marketing cost and would have allowed them to offer a fully integrated product to their core customers, enterprise as well as to consumers.

    Maybe it's not too late, but I imagine the next WP update will play heavily to enterprise and Nokia will produce a low cost phone and tablet targeting business and government users and close the door on a WP powered BB.
    widow maker
  • It's because MS already has a lot of developers and Xbox Live

    It's not so much about the programming language as it is the IDE and many people are already using. MS made it very easy for web and desktop developers to write phone apps.

    The other thing is Xbox Live integration. Anyone who's into cheevos/gamerscore has to buy a windows phone. What's the use of playing games on your phone if you don't get credit for it (I have 100,000 cheevos). They should have just called it, Xbox Phone and Xbox Tablet and they would have sold a ton more. Everyone just think XP BSOD when they think of windows.

    BB doesn't have any of that, it's dead.
  • Apps

    not exactly same approach. MS made only software and NOKIA, HTC,samsung etc made hardware. And Ms tools were easy to make apps and APP s are blood for any OS.
  • YEP Windows Phone Leapped frogged Blackberrry

    windows phone no doubts, I aways knew it will jump ahead blackberry to 3rd horse race, its now a 3 horse race not 2 horse race.

    The ecosystem of Microsoft is so much superior to blackberry lacklustre, wtf is blackberry music, its services its just lack and late, they just added blackberry videos to download movies & tv shows, wp7 started that back in 2010 with zune, even before wp7, zune services back in 2006. windows phone can already download movies and music from its services now called xbox music and xbox video

    the game service is so much suprerior because of its strong xbox brand image, nothing come close to xbox live on mobile, not even playstation mobile, it has better games than blackberry, voice chat, better multiplayer etc, message your friends across windows 8, xbox 360, xbox one with ease to your windows phone on xbox live, without disjointed, its all connected together which is superior to blackberry lacklustre

    its so good, it even Microsoft have its own first party studio (Microsoft Studios), creates games across not only Xboxes, windows 8 & windows phone that push some mobile games to the edge, for e.g halo Spartan assault.

    windows phones even connect closely with surface windows tablets, other windows tablets, Xboxes, office, windows 8 pc together unlike blackberry 10 and flopped playbook running 2.0, that their is no blackberry 10 for playbook, since its dead.

    Microsoft enterprise not even oracle comes close, even Blackberry cant match Microsoft enterprise features on windows phones.

    the combination of hardware and software with OEMS for e.g Microsoft & Nokia collaborated with the Nokia Lumia 1020 Software and Hardware, that blackberry cant even do, struggling finding OEMs for its unwanted Blackberry 10. It is important in Microsoft, that's part of its core, that's what make windows succeeded. windows phone oem too especially nokia hardware, not only that it just fits and work together. makes quality piece of tech (software and hardware). its vibrant colourful phones great for hands on customers, people tired of black brick blackberrys lack of colour of life. its just sad to look at blackberries in the shelf on mobile stores.

    the services, such as nokia here maps is so much better than tomtom maps, they are crap compared to here maps, offline support on it so much better. tomtom was made for navigation, not maps.

    The fulid WP UI is so entizing not blackberry 10 can match with its gesture ui. the apps don't get me started on blackberry 10 is poor, I am talking about quality of apps, not quantity, I don't give a shit if blackberry has more quantity of apps than windows phones, its all about quality, no one buys crap looking unstable android port apps, does not cut it for blackberry, they are not pushing developers to go to their native ui app gesture TAT UI they acquired, feels like they wasted on a talented UX company.

    The whole ecosystem is just utter shit and weak compared to windows phones, today as consumers, not all are business users, most are consumers, need a smartphone to do everything on the go. not just business enterprise, they want to listen to music, watch movies, play games, use good apps, social, blackberry doesn't offer that much compare to windows phones.

    don't get me started with social. windows phones people hub is so much intergrated than bad buggy blackberry social hub.

    Its commercial push and its growth of sales and its sales and its models are better, especially in the mid range and low range market, more models of htc 8s, nokia Lumia 520 etc, get into people hands qulickly than blackberry 10 devices, I took so long for blackberry to push out mid range and a lower range blackberry 10 device while windows phone had those from the start that's what pushed blackberry to 4th. its marketshare rose up, reciginton brand of windows phone and nokia Lumia, blackberry is so faded. they were more promotion for windows phones along with android and iphones than blackberry in tv, advertising boards

    and it also got a unqiue selling point that blackberry don't have, unqiue UI that doesn't look like you get with an ordinary smartphone and its amazing cameras from nokia lumias 920/925/1020.

    plus OEM support even though 80% nokia shipped, but still have Samsung which 2nd worlds biggest WP OEM, & HTC and Hauwei, others like LG jumping in soon. that's why windows phones outsold blackberry 3:1 especially Nokia Help.

    Better app developers, app growth = which all windows phones are native apps like android and ios apps, all made for each operating system unlike blackberry 10, small percent is just native apps. that consumers want to experience quality apps that doesn't look the same as your previous phone. yep I keep saying the complaints about lack of native apps for blackberry but its the truth. Windows Phones have 64% of top ios and android apps, its getting better than blackberry support, in developers massive growth since 2012, better growth than last year, it will be getting official Vine, Flipbook, Path, Facebook updates support and even Instergram collaborated with Microsoft, who need crappy ports from other operating system, while you can have the official quality fluid and useable UI friendly app fits for that operating system with no lags and errors. plus those apps not only coming to windows phone, windows 8 Vine, Flipbook etc, even official Facebook app coming to windows 8 that windows phone already have.

    only little special is QNX, not every car uses it, only few. most use just Linux & supermarkets and other businesses some use windows embedded.

    its no brainer that windows phone leaped ahead of blackberry. middle of next year windows phone will hit the double digit market share, now its target apple & android. less in a couple years who knows leapfrog apple market share.

    so its no brainer that windows phone leaped ahead of blackberry.
    good for Microsoft & Nokia. It shut up the haters that think windows phone will never be top 3 mobile operating systems in the world. Kudos to them, they deserve it with their hard work. Blackberry doesn't deserve shit. success come to you if you push and work harder. Success paid both Microsoft & Nokia. Sorry Blackberry.
  • Plus

    plus even better dev tools on windows phone than blackberry. in my opinion. Blackberry is just slapping and relying on android apps. Windows Phone don't need that.
  • meh

    They're both irrelevant.
    N.T. Diluvian
  • Re: how well Windows RT would have done

    It wouldn't have done any better, because it couldn't have come out any earlier. Microsoft's internal Windows empire hates this new upstart mobile market. The old Windows Mobile worked fine as a sop to customers' limited needs, as long as there was little or no competition.

    But once Android appeared, the game changed. But the Windows empire doesn't want the game to change. Hence Microsoft's reluctant, tardy and totally inadequate responses in the form of Windows Phone Strike 1, Windows Phone Strike 2 and Windows Reduced Technology. Instead of learning from Android, it keeps trying to copy Apple. But that's a dead-end strategy.
    • Not sure what your smoking but Microsoft has always

      loved mobile. They already owned the enterprise so they see mobile as a big new market to take over. And they're doing well at it. They'll probably pass apple in 2 years. And btw they are not copying either apple or android, but both of those are copying from WP now.
      Johnny Vegas
      • Re: Microsoft has always loved mobile

        Which is why they've done so well in it.
  • Re: "We envision an OS that scales from small ... all the way up to the hi

    Of course, that's why they were so quick to innovate in the 7-inch and 8-inch form factors, not to mention beating Android to phablets.