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Microsoft's real problem with mobile isn't (just) devices

The future of secure, modern Windows apps needs to go beyond Surface.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor
Microsoft Nokia Lumia 930

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has promised to stick with Windows phones, but he's also made it clear the target for those phones is enthusiasts and enterprise.

Image: Getty Images

At the Microsoft shareholders' meeting last week, some unhappy Windows phone fans who also happen to be shareholders asked CEO Satya Nadella what Microsoft was doing for the consumer market on its own platform, not just on iOS and Android.

Nadella's answer was that consumer and enterprise users are still just people who use the same device at home and at work, whatever platform they're on.

"I don't think of these as separate markets. I think about users, people, and their devices. The basic construct that we think about architecturally and technically is that it's not about just one device, it's about all the devices for the person. In other words, whether it's the app or the operating system, we want to build it for the person across their devices," he said.

In other words, the shareholders didn't need to worry about not finding Outlook or Pix in the Windows phone Store because they already have them. "Outlook, interestingly enough in the context of the Windows Phone, is the mail client, you don't need to go look for another client because it's built into the phone, whereas, in your own operating systems, the camera will have the smarts, you don't need a separate application. You will not need another separate mail program. When we control things silicon up, that's how we will integrate those experiences."

It certainly makes sense for Office and plenty of other Microsoft apps to be cross platform -- what Nadella calls the mobility of the experience rather than the device. Wherever you go, there's Office and you need Office 365 to get all the features.

That keeps users who'd otherwise switch to different tools.

"We're not stepping away from supporting our Windows Phone users," Nadella reassured the shareholders. "But at the same time we are recognizing that there are other platforms in mobile that have higher [market] share and we want to make sure that our software is available on this."

It also makes sense for Microsoft to create new apps first on platforms where there's the largest market for that app, so whether it's an experimental Garage project or a new offering like Sway, it will often show up first on iOS or Android. The machine learning that Sway uses to lay out text and images is now part of PowerPoint. Outlook on all platforms will soon combine the Exchange Clutter feature with the focussed inbox that started in Accompli on iOS. It's obvious how that's useful to Microsoft and to Windows users, even though they're no longer Microsoft's only customers.

Of course, they never were Microsoft's only, but 'best on Windows' is now about features that only Windows supports, like laptop touchscreens, rather than basic features you could have on any OS: witness the large numbers of Windows features coming to the Mac version of Office in the regular monthly updates, or the way Outlook on iOS can look up free times in the calendar of the person you're arranging a meeting with.

Getting more users for Microsoft services is a no-brainer. Putting Cortana on iOS and Android creates Bing users (even if they don't know it). OneDrive on every platform is just common sense. The features in the Pix camera app for Android and iOS were on Windows Phone first (as the now-defunct Blink app, and in some Nokia camera features that went away) but the photos do get saved onto OneDrive.

But what about utilities like the Swiftkey keyboard on iOS and Android, that make the OS and devices of other companies better without bringing those users onto any Microsoft services? If the idea is to test things out and bring them back to Microsoft's own platform, why is the Word Flow keyboard on Windows 10 Mobile still so bad (when it was such a superb feature on Windows Phone)?

Mobile beyond phones

The problem is that 'what's happening with Windows 10 Mobile?' may not be the right question for understanding mobile strategy at Microsoft.

Microsoft isn't going to give up on Windows Phone; it has customers like the NYPD who will have signed a long-term support contract. And developing the Windows phone OS ought to be far less work, because so much of it can simply fall out of developing Windows 10 -- although the continuing problems with features like the Word Flow keyboard show it's not quite that simple.

When speaking to shareholders, Nadella promised to stick with Windows phones, but he also made it clear the target for those phones is enthusiasts and enterprise.

"We're not stepping away or back from our focus on our mobile devices. What we are going to do is focus that effort on places where we have differentiation. If you take Windows Phone, where we are differentiated in Windows Phone, it's manageability, it's security, it's Continuum capability, that is the ability to have a phone that, in fact, can even act like a PC."

Instead of the year-old, heavily discounted Lumia 950 XL, he name-checked the HP X3 -- because Microsoft doesn't want to make all the hardware its OS runs on, just the ones that create the categories the OEMs can then take over.

Personally, when Nadella talks about a new device that redefines what mobility means, I suspect he's talking about HoloLens or VR headsets rather than that just-a-rumour Surface Phone.

But the mention of Continuum underlines the importance of UWP apps, and especially universal UWP apps -- because they're the ones that can run on the phone and then 'act like a PC' on a big screen. UWP matters for HoloLens and for Xbox, but where it matters most, it's still not looking strong enough.

Yes, there's another rumour about running x86 apps on phones now that ARM chips have virtualisation support, but I tend to find that any time I have a screen, keyboard, and mouse to use with a phone, they're already plugged into a PC that I could use instead.

Plus, the legacy of x86 apps isn't just the powerful features that have kept PCs selling well long after the 'death of the PC' was proclaimed. It's also battery-hogging code and malware. There's a reason the original Surface didn't run x86 apps even though Microsoft had the tools to compile x86 code to run on ARM (that's how we got Office on the Surface). That x86 software isn't the best match to the lightweight, long battery life mobile world -- curated app stores are.

Windows 10 needs modern, secure, sandboxed apps that don't make themselves and the OS vulnerable by relying on desktop APIs that were designed for a more trusting (or simply more naïve) world. That's not about Microsoft controlling the app economy; it's about keeping people using Windows PCs rather than giving up and switching to iPads because they look less likely to get ransomware. UWP is a big part of the answer to many of the problems that have plagued PCs for years. But if UWP apps only run on PCs -- even desirable PCs like Surface Studio -- is there enough incentive for developers to build them?

To solve the app problem for businesses and the security problem for users, UWP apps need to be a thriving ecosystem. And to succeed, UWPs have to go beyond PCs, and beyond tablets like Surface Pro. There have to be credible phone devices for UWPs to run on, because otherwise UWP on Windows 10 ends up as an also-ran.

If Microsoft concentrates on enterprises and enthusiasts, security ought to be a huge selling point for Windows phones. Security company Lookout says that their data shows 3 to 5 percent of phones have malware (they track both iOS and Android), mostly adware and spyware.

And battery life is often far better on Windows phones; my Nokia 1520 routinely has 50 percent battery life at the point in the day when an Android or iOS phone is already plugged into an external battery for a top up. Concentrating on the basics might help Microsoft not just not back away from phones but get back to differentiating.

Because to keep Windows 10 healthy in the long run, Microsoft needs to up its game on Windows Mobile, from CEO promises to delivering something that does what Windows phone always has: delights users.

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