Windows Mobile: Can Microsoft get us excited again?

Microsoft hopes both businesses and loyal fans will adopt Windows 10 on phones; businesses might be the better bet.

With Windows Mobile, Microsoft has an opportunity created by the high cost of iPhones and the security worries about Android handsets. Image: Microsoft
How is Windows Mobile going to compete with the iPhone and the ubiquity of Android? By targeting "two audiences that we think we can serve incredibly well," says Microsoft chief marketing officer Chris Capossela.

Speaking to an analyst conference in New York, he explained that Microsoft has changed how it's approaching the phone market.

"We're going to build phones for our Windows fans. If you love Windows 10, if you love your Windows 10 tablet, or Surface, or laptop, we want to have a beautiful phone for you, something you'd be incredibly proud of that's going to have the same experience across your devices, the same apps will run on the phone as run on your Windows 10 laptop or tablet. And it's going to feel incredibly natural. And we really think the Windows fans want a wonderful Windows Phone that will be a premium flagship phone.

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"We're also going to build phones for businesses. We know business customers want a very, very secure phone that's incredibly good at calendar management, at e-mail, at productivity, and Skype for Business, et cetera. And so we think those two segments are segments we can focus on and build a much, much better solution and much better business than we have today."

Windows Phone commands higher share outside the US; anywhere from 10 percent in Germany to 12 percent in the UK and France to 14.5 percent in Italy where it pushes iOS into third place (that's for the three months ending July 2015, according to research firm Kantar), but going after targeted areas of the market is likely to give Microsoft better results in those areas.

On the business side, Microsoft has an opportunity created by the high cost of iPhones and the security worries about Android handsets - and the fact that a company wanting to develop custom applications will be able to build a universal app for Windows desktops, notebooks, tablets, and phones.

Most mobile developers have iOS and Android development skills - but most businesses have .Net and Microsoft development skills that will transfer well to mobile development. The new security features will appeal to business users, as will Cortana's ability to integrate into business systems.

Businesses like Windows 10, and they like Microsoft devices. The reason that Dell and HP are now distributing Surface Pro 3 is that enterprises like the device enough to buy them, and they want to buy them from enterprise suppliers they already have relationships with, who can deliver the service, support, and integration they're used to - whether that's loading custom images or replacing broken devices overnight at remote offices.

Businesses also like Windows Phone: Q4 sales to UK businesses in 2014 were 25.6 percent of the market, according to researcher Canalsys, not far behind Apple's 29 percent. Mobile analyst Nick McQuire of CCS Insights says he hears from a lot of businesses that while a few executives might get iPhones, the phones they plan to issue to employees to replace their BlackBerry fleet will run Windows.

But appealing to Windows Phone fans, who have become frustrated at the long gap since the last flagship Windows phone, may be harder.

The rumoured specs for the Cityman and Talkman phones that Microsoft is expected to launch at its October 6 event in New York include pen support and iris recognition for Windows Hello (which should be faster than logging on with a fingerprint scanner). That means the containers that businesses can use to protect business files will stay secure; that won't be as useful for consumers until sites and services start using the FIDO Alliance 2 standard for replacing passwords that Windows 10 supports.

But they don't have a camera to rival the Lumia 1020's 40 megapixels, and Microsoft is retiring some of the more interesting Nokia camera apps to concentrate on its own Photos app in Windows 10 - which may or may not get the features from Refocus and Storyteller.

Add that to the way that the Windows Mobile interface has dropped some of its unique design features, adding hamburger menus and other iOS and Android design ideas, and providing ways for developers to bring apps from iOS and Android with few changes, and Windows Phone fans have started to wonder how much of what attracted them to the platform in the first place will survive.

Windows Mobile now features a brand new app for email and calendar, based on the iOS Accompli acquisition, and the Office apps are the Windows 10 versions, which means it's easy to view this as Microsoft just rebuilding the same thing rather than improving what they had in Windows Phone 8.1.

Seeing how the sausage is made doesn't always help; preview builds of Windows Mobile are obviously incomplete (as preview builds of Windows 10 were) but there's been a certain amount of frustration from users, not helped by the changing lists of which handsets will be able to upgrade to Windows 10 when it's first released.

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Mobile was always going to come later than Windows 10 on PCs. Even though it's effectively the same operating system, it's not quite the same - there's no desktop, there are the phone features like calling and messaging to build in, and the small screen design has to be different. Adapting Windows 10 for the phone couldn't happen until Windows 10 itself was at a certain point, and Microsoft was obviously going to prioritise the much larger Windows market. And Windows 10 matured rapidly when the team switched from adding features to purely fixing bugs to prepare for the July 29 launch, so current build quality doesn't tell you that much about how well the version of Windows Mobile that comes on new phones this autumn will run.

But perceptions matter when it comes to fandom and enthusiasm. If you want an emotional response to your products, you need to prepare to deal with frustration and disappointment as well as delight.

For businesses, Microsoft mostly needs to show what problems it can solve, and a closer resemblance to iOS and Android may actually be an advantage. But to sell Windows 10 to the Windows Phone fans, Microsoft needs to get them excited again.

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