Windows Phone needs a remake before it becomes ignored

With each passing day, Windows Phone is becoming more irrelevant as developers steer clear of the mobile operating system.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Three years have passed since Windows Phone made its public arrival, and this year, the mobile operating system earned the coveted third place that Microsoft wanted for it — but wearing the bronze medal matters for naught when one is operating in a market that is solidifying a duopoly.

Windows Phone currently finds itself in somewhat of a purple patch: The platform's market share is increasing, with some forecasts pegging it to reach double figures in 2017, and Microsoft has taken the ecosystem by the scruff of the neck with its proposed purchase of the devices arm of Nokia for $7.2 billion.

The good news kept coming last week, as Nokia announced that it sold 8.8 million Lumia smartphones over the third quarter of this year.

Donning rose-coloured glasses and looking into the future, one could easily extrapolate a future where Microsoft and Windows Phone is a competitive third player in the mobile world.

The problem with extrapolation is that it is a cheap argument to make, and one that is often wrong.

While Nokia moved 40 percent more Lumias this year compared to last year's numbers, 8.8 million devices are a mere drop in the ocean of mobile sales, or, as Apple would put it, an opening weekend for the iPhone 5s and 5c. On the Android side of the equation, Samsung is able to sell 10 million of its S4 devices in a month.

It shows the scale of what Windows Phone is up against. Compared to its own previous poor performance, Windows Phone is starting to turn itself around, but when looked at from the perspective of the entire industry, it remains dwarfed by its rivals and lulls far behind the big two operating systems, with market share figures that have yet to crack the 5 percent mark.

As it currently stands, less than one in 25 smartphones that are purchased around the world use Windows Phone. That's hardly the awakening of a sleeping giant, and more reflective of a platform stalled at the starting block.

Time is running out for Windows Phone to get the easy wins left in the smartphone market, and fewer chances exist at the moment to earn customers upgrading from feature phones. There are signs that the developed world is approaching smartphone saturation, meaning that most of the customers that Windows Phone needs to nab on its way to a double-digit penetration in the smartphone market will have to be won away from Android and iOS.

That will be no mean feat for a platform that is trailing and being neglected in one of the core considerations of a consumer smartphone purchase: The app ecosystem.

At the time of writing, the highly popular Instagram, Vine, and Flipboard apps are still slated as arriving on the platform shortly.

When apps produced by companies the size of Facebook and Twitter decide to ignore your app platform, it is generally not a case of the platform being unlucky; there's more often a reason why the app is not on the platform. If Facebook or Twitter saw a pressing need to be on Windows Phone, they would have moved heaven and Earth to be there at the earliest possible juncture.

In the case of Instagram, the app itself is over three years old, and arrived on Android just after it had gained over half of the US smartphone market in April 2012.

The trend of neglecting Windows Phone development has been reflected locally in Australia as well. In the space of a month, two of the country's four largest banks released new banking apps. For CBA's CommBank app, Windows Phone did not implement the killer feature of the app update, NFC payments. This happened despite Windows Phone handsets possessing an NFC element, and failing that, being technically capable of working with MasterCard's Pay Tag technology if needed to. In the case of NAB's Flik app, Windows Phone was ignored altogether.

It's not a good place for the up-and-coming platform to find itself: Stranded in third against two competitors that receive development resources long before it does.

For the enterprise, the omens are better for Microsoft — Redmond is able to boast of headline deployments such as Oslo ordering 3,000 Windows Phones and Delta rolling out 19,000 Windows Phone devices for flight attendants. But under the surface, away from the headlines, other businesses are taking another route and removing Nokia from mobile device programs.

The Achilles' heel of Windows Phone may turn out to be the existence of Microsoft's other platforms compressing it from above.

For the CXO looking to make a decision on a preferred mobility platform, they have the same trio of choices that have existed for a number of years: Android powers the vast majority of devices and is creeping its way onto more form factors all the time; iOS comes with the assurance of Apple control and the longevity that comes with being the platform that defined both the smartphone and tablet revolutions; and then there is the Windows Phone/Windows RT/Windows 8 hodgepodge.

Were the CXO to choose either Android or iOS, then the applications that are created for those devices will work across both smartphone and tablet form factors. For Windows Phone, although it has more in common nowadays with its Windows desktop cousin than ever, it remains a separate operating system, and an app must have some amount of porting performed on it to work with Windows RT and Windows 8. Therefore, the proposition that Microsoft is offering the CXO who wants a phone and tablet solution is to write one application for Windows Phone, and write another, very similar application for Windows RT or the Windows 8 desktop.

If the CXO is lucky enough to have the core business app already rewritten in the WinRT framework, then getting the app onto mobile devices should be painless enough. But if the CXO has a long-maintained and well-working legacy application, then the prospect of writing two new applications to have phone and tablet support across Windows devices looks far more involved than a single new Android or iOS app, which will achieve the same result and be installable on many employee devices as well.

For organisations that have legacy desktop applications that have been lovingly maintained for years, the existence of Windows 8 desktops on tablets gives an opportunity to have a tablet app for minimal fuss. It's an opportunity that cuts Windows Phone out of the equation altogether.

Windows Phone 8 arrives bearing the same kernel as its Windows RT and Windows 8 brethren; however, in app development terms, it is annoyingly similar, but in no way compatible enough to spare developers from the need to port their work.

What Microsoft is sorely lacking is one grand, unifying framework for application development.

The company needs to offer a truly single ecosystem to developers that takes full advantage of the first-class tooling that the company possesses. An actual platform that has no compromises, not a series of compromises built into other compromises that currently leaves Windows Phone as an incompatible subset of the standard Windows environment.

Windows Phone 8 started the journey, but didn't go far enough.

Microsoft needs something to offer app users and developers, something that they cannot find on competing platforms, and the ability to have one Microsoft-supported app framework for phone, tablet, and desktop implementations would be quite compelling.

Microsoft needs something drastic to happen to draw developers' attention away from the Android/iOS duopoly, and giving mobile developers the option to be desktop developers in the same app creation process could be the circuit breaker that Redmond needs.

Failure to do so will see Android and iOS continue to dominate the mobile space for the foreseeable future.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 9:00am in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm ET on Sunday in the US, 11:00pm Sunday in London, and 6:00am Monday in Singapore. It is written by one of ZDNet's lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States.

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