It's time for Microsoft to bring Windows 10 Mobile back from the dead

Recent antitrust developments in the EU could present an opportunity for a third mobile platform that never really had a chance to mature and develop an ecosystem when it first released.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It has been the primary driving force behind all the major film and television releases in the last 10 years, such as with the Marvel and Star Warsfilm franchises.

ZDNet's parent company, CBS, is no exception. It's been making quite a go of it -- taking advantage of that nostalgia trend by re-casting familiar iconic characters on Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All-Access. In CBS prime time, the revival of Hawaii Five-O is renewed for its 9th season. And now, so has Magnum, P.I., as if it was back from the dead, sans Tom Selleck's mustache.

A bout of nostalgia

A fondness for reviving old brands is happening with tech as well. Palm seems to think that people have the same attachment to tech legacies as we do stuff like Luke Skywalker and Mister Spock. But I digress.

Most of the time, I feel that our fondness for the old comes from a frustration with the present and the complexities that often come along with it. We tend to look at old things, particularly technology, with rose-colored glasses.

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We're looking at it from afar and tend to cherry-pick the aspects of these systems we really liked while ignoring a lot of shortcomings that we ended up having to address in the future.

I had a bout of nostalgia recently when Ben Rudolph, an all-around great guy and Managing Director of Microsoft Modern Journalism tweeted out that his dad is still a Windows Phone user. He uses the HTC 8X, which was released toward the end of 2012 on AT&T.

His tweet has over 300 likes so far, and it got me thinking a lot about the ill-fated smartphone platform.

Microsoft committed infanticide

I am now of the increasing opinion that Microsoft committed infanticide on the mobile operating system. The last Windows 10 Mobile phone from Microsoft, the Lumia 650 was released in 2016. The last OEM device, the HP Elite x3 (and considered by Windows Mobile fans to be the best of its kind) was released in October 2017.

It was Windows Mobile's swan song.

In October 2017, Microsoft announced it was discontinuing support for Windows 10 Mobile, citing poor sales and slow developer uptake.

There were indeed a number of things that Windows 10 Mobile had going against it. It was resource-heavy and the hardware really could not keep up with it. Microsoft decided to stop building devices, OEM interest evaporated, and the OS was subsequently euthanized.

But Windows 10 as a platform was relatively new even in the PC space, and it had not even reached a critical mass of desktop users yet let alone mobile ones.

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When it was put to sleep, it used a completely new programmatic model, Universal Windows Platform or UWP (also referred Modern Windows apps) that ran entirely on the modern Windows 10 UX.

While UWP finally brought sanity and consistent APIs between the Mobile and Desktop versions of Windows, many legacy Windows apps had to be (mostly) re-written from scratch using .NET, and there really were not good porting tools for iOS and Android, so filling out the "app gap" proved to be a very challenging exercise.

But there was a lot to like about Windows 10 Mobile. First of all, although it was resource-intensive, it performed really well, and I would say it was one of the most stable mobile operating systems I have ever used -- even more stable than iOS 12 or Android Pie is now.

Less is more

Rudolph's dad is hardly unique as a Windows 10 Mobile and Windows Phone hanger-on. I've met quite a few people in the past year or so, usually older folks, who really like their devices and refuse to upgrade them to an Android or an iPhone. They live. Like the undead.

Why are they still using them? Well, I can tell you at least from my own personal experience that, as you get closer to age 50, you want things in your life to be simpler. It's not that one necessarily is incapable of learning new things, but you begin to find a new-found appreciation in "less is more."

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Windows 10 Mobile is both a highly sophisticated OS that has all the modern accouterments one could possibly want in terms of feature set and security enhancements, but it also has a UX that is extremely easy to navigate and free of "noise" and other distractions that propagates its design philosophy to all the apps that run on it.

It has a consistency between applications and an elegance that just plain doesn't exist on the other platforms, which alleviates the psychological context switching you may find between an app like Twitter and, say, Facebook or an email app like Outlook.

I currently own several Android devices, including the new Pixel 3, as well as the iPhone XS Max. I find myself even on a 6.5-inch display and straining to read the text with fonts blown up to their largest size. My eyes have never been that great, as I have to wear Progressives, but at 49, I'm struggling. It's one of the reasons why I am looking forward to getting another iPad Pro 12.9-inch, since I can only tolerate using a screen that small for so many hours a day.

However, on my aging Lumia 950 XL which I sometimes pull out of the nightstand drawer to use as a late-night email client, reading the display is as clear as can be due to the high-contrast UX. And those 1080p screens were optimized for sharp viewing in multiple angles as well.

Ahead of its time

Let's not forget that Windows 10 desktop in Insider builds got a "Dark Mode" recently and Mac OS X Mojave has made a big deal out of that, too. A number of Android and iOS apps are also starting to feature it. But Windows 10 Mobile? It was always "Dark Mode." That was the default operation, with light text and bright high-contrast icons on black background. It was ahead of its time.

Also: Windows 10 Mobile? No new features but a new phone

There are a lot of other good technical arguments for why Windows 10 Mobile should come back. For starters, the hardware is just that much better now than it was when the 950XL was released: Faster cores, faster memory, and better screens, for one.

The Snapdragon 845, or the Huawei Kirin 980 or even the current Samsung Exynos 9810 would run Windows 10 Mobile like a rocket ship. Even the mid-range versions of those chips would run the platform and its apps extremely well now. A $200 snappy Windows 10 Mobile device is entirely doable with today's parts.

And Microsoft Edge, as a browser, has matured a great deal in the last four years. It's a more stable, much faster browser than either Chrome or Safari is, and it renders legacy websites much better than it did when it first came out.

All these are good technical reasons for bringing Windows 10 Mobile back from the dead. We haven't even begun to discuss the other enhancements the overall Windows 10 codebase has had in the last three years that would likely make it into a refreshed mobile OS SKU.

The challenges of restoring developer juju

The app gap, while still a challenge for Windows 10, is a much more addressable problem now. While UWP is still a valid programmatic model, Microsoft has shifted its priorities toward PWA, or Progressive Web Apps, using rapid application development cloud-centric programming languages such as HTML5.

PWA as an overall application programming strategy is also becoming more popular in Android and iOS. So, closing the gap using cross-platform development tools for PWA would make that effort easier.

Microsoft has also introduced much better cross-platform tools that would enable native UWP apps to be built, as well. Android and iOS now have fully modernized versions of .NET Standard and can now share UX elements in their overall application design using XAML with Windows, so maintaining a codebase using Visual Studio for all three platforms is much, much easier than it was previously.

Improvements in tools aside, Microsoft would have its work cut out for it in trying to convince developers to resume development of applications for Windows Mobile 10 if it decided to bring the operating system back from the dead.

It would face these challenges even if it did a heck of a job rebranding it (such as "Edge OS" or something along those lines to remove any negative association with its predecessor) or giving it enough of a facelift that consumers wouldn't immediately recognize it.

Microsoft shows off Windows 10 on mobile (pictures)

And I am not just talking about an OS codebase that hasn't seen the light of day or an active development team at Microsoft in probably three years. That would not be the most difficult problem, because Windows 10 runs on modern ARM processors now; they would just have to re-open all the project files and rebuild it with current Windows 10 source code.

Knowing what I know about Microsoft's internal build systems, I would be surprised if it was not set up to do it already or if the iterations haven't been going on in stealth mode for years.

The big issue, as I see it, is overall developer confidence in Microsoft, and for lack of a better descriptor, good mojoand juju, as voodoo practitioners say.

I would argue that Microsoft's mojo/juju with developers is better than it has been in a long time. The latest batch of Surface hardware has been very well received, and the new Open Source-friendly Microsoft is now widely viewed as being a more progressive company than Apple and more trustworthy than Google.

Windows now has "cool" factor, and that's important for any software platform if you are going to develop for it.

That being said, there are still substantial costs for developers and especially for those that were burned by early incarnations of Windows on mobile devices.

PWA and UWP may be easier to develop for now, but that doesn't mean it is free to do so or effortless -- significant effort is still required and getting those burned former .NET developers that are now focusing their efforts on Android and iOS to spend time, effort, and money to port their current code over to Windows 10 Mobile is not going to be an easy task.

But even if Microsoft doesn't bring Windows 10 Mobile back from the dead, it has the same problems to face with Windows 10 on the desktop and UWP apps there. Eventually, it needs to solve that problem if it wants Windows 10 to be more than just a system for running (mostly) legacy Win32 applications.

Also: Here's how you can still get a free Windows 10 upgrade

What about the business drivers?

I think we can make an argument for a third, strong mobile platform, because the two predominant platforms, Android and iOS, are becoming stale. They are sitting on their laurels, and users are becoming tired of them.

Google is at work behind the scenes, figuring out what to do with the next generation of its mobile software with Fuchsia, while at the same time, it is attempting (badly) to introduce Android compatibility with Chrome OS in an effort to grab tablet screen real estate away from iPad and also Windows 10 on the desktop.

Apple is just struggling to keep its crufty software from blowing up between releases and introduce new features to attract ever-fatigued users to newer iPhone hardware that they don't seem keen on spending big money on.

There is a lot to be said for Windows 10 Mobile's consistent UX, its stability, and its enterprise security features in relation to these platforms. You can also make the case that it would a great platform for any number of vertical industries or for inexpensive, secure, fleet phones.

And let's not get into the "toxic hellstew" that Android has as well, which causes any number of fragmentation headaches for developers and stability and security issues for end-users and businesses that use that platform.

Also: Windows 10 after three years: A greatly improved report card

Certainly, Microsoft is doing a lot to have a symbiotic relationship with iOS and Android. And it should continue to do that because it's a big revenue generator for them for Office 365 and its other cloud services. Riding on top of those platforms is a sound strategy because Apple and Google are the leaders in the mobile space.

But, as mentioned previously, Apple's products are very expensive. It's a bad choice for the enterprise that is only doing partial BYOD and needs to equip some or all of its employees with phones.

And Google is going to have more and more challenges in regions that are becoming increasingly intolerant of its monopolistic strongarm behavior such as the European Union. And for OEMs that use Google's software in the EU, that means increased costs because of the need to license that stack.

Windows 10 Mobile, on the other hand, in its last version before it was given the zombie dust, was free of licensing costs for devices under 9 inches. I would expect that Microsoft, should it bring it back, would extend those same terms again.

Surface Phone

I am not saying that Microsoft should make a massive capital investment and release "Surface Phone" tomorrow. But perhaps it should take some baby steps by floating the idea to Chinese device manufacturers, such as Huawei, Oppo and Xiaomi, and even Korean companies like Samsung and LG, that it now has a new OS option for the EU and other markets where they can release highly compelling, cost-competitive high-performance and secure devices that are free of royalties.

Is it time for Windows 10 Mobile to come back from the dead? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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