Yesterday, Microsoft announced that it would be rethinking its phone strategy, and cutting up to 7800 jobs, mostly from the phone business. Significantly, the company would also be writing off nearly all the value of its USD 9.5 billion Nokia acquisition, which had at that time been hailed as a bold step into the future. While most have been seeing this as a shocking error of judgement by Microsoft in general and its Nokia takeover in particular, it also officially rings the death knell for an operating system that two years ago many were thinking would give Android a decent run for its money: Windows Phone 8. No, it is not as ridiculous as it sounds – at around this time in 2013, the Lumia 520 had run up staggering sales and had spurred a record quarter for Nokia’s Lumia range, which ran exclusively on Windows Phone. Many tech writers, Yours Truly included, were advocating Lumia devices at lower price points over their Android counterparts, and even at the flagship levels, the likes of the Lumia 1020 were attracting attention. The apps, which were once considered the Achilles Heel of the platform, were growing at a healthy pace. There was talk of other brands getting attracted to the platform. And all seemed well with the Windows Phone world.
And then it all just went downhill in a downfall of titanic (pun intended) proportions. Today, Windows Phone 8 has a very small part of the smartphone market and is seen to be on its last legs as the world gets ready for Windows 10. The irony: it STILL remains one of the smoothest operating systems we have used and continues to work brilliantly.
Why, then, did it run out of steam? Well, there were many reasons, and we might never really know a few of them, but on the surface, we think that these eight factors in particular took a very heavy toll of the platform:
1. The missing flagships / period of silence
There has not been a Windows Phone flagship or forget that, even a notable Windows Phone device since the Lumia 930 in April 2014. And no, this was not because Microsoft was taking a leaf out of the book of its Cupertino rival and following a “one device a year” model. We have seen short bursts of activity from time to time in the period since, but these have been of mid-segment and low-end devices. The “star” device has been missing in action for a while – and even if one considered the Lumia 930 to be one, there was no other that was even remotely comparable, although some of the loyalists stubbornly continued to sport the even older Lumia 1520. That is a luxury no platform can ever have. Android flagships were flooding the market, but we had no idea what was happening in Redmond.
2. The never-changing interface
I first used a Windows Phone device in late 2010. Fast forward to today and theat tiled interface has not changed much – in fact, on first glance many mainstream users will not be able to distinguish between Windows Phone 7 and 8. Of course, some would level the same “lack of visible changes” accusation at Apple and iOS, but then that is an interface that was available on a very small number of devices. The sheer absence of change in the interface (notwithstanding nuanced tweaks like the introduction of a notification area, resizeable tiles, and background images) and its lack of customisation options, especially when compared to the incredibly flexible Android, earned it a reputation of being “boring.” Even as Apple went for a flatter look in iOS 8 and Android turned to Material Design, Microsoft refused to change its tiles. The delay in getting the Windows Phone 8.1 update to all Windows Phone 8 devices also eroded one of the key strengths of the OS – that it got updates across to all devices in a timely manner.
3. Exit, price advantage
Towards the end of 2013, Windows Phone was steadily chipping away at Android’s mainstream users, as its low-end devices like the Lumia 520 simply did more than most devices running on Android at the same price point. 2014, however, saw the arrival of extremely low priced devices with the likes of the Moto G, Moto E, Xiaomi Redmi 1S, the Asus ZenFone 5 proving that users could get a very good Android experience for a relatively low price. The Windows Phone brigade reacted with… nothing. At least for a few months. By the time the Lumia 535 came out, a lot of ground had been lost.
4. The hardware and performance compromise
After having claimed that there would be no compromises on the Windows Phone experience, 2014-15 saw devices running the OS come out with 2.0-megapixel cameras (the Lumia 430) and even fixed focus cameras – at a time when the competition was offering 8.0-megapixel Sony sensors at comparably priced devices. 2015 was also the first time we actually saw lags on Windows Phone 8 devices. The “great experience no matter what the price point” ground was lost, ironically at a time when Android manufacturers were churning out devices that performed better at lower price points.
5. The lack of appy fizz
After seeming to be gaining by leaps and bounds on the app front, Windows Phone seemingly went quiet in 2014. Apps that were updated on other platforms like Android and iOS did not get updates on Windows Phone – Instagram remains in beta on the platform and was last updated on 22 March, 2014, and Google has not even bothered releasing some of its apps for the platform. Things were not helped by the fact that popular preinstalled services like Nokia Music were discontinued in 2015.
6. The non-appearance of non-Nokia brands
Many felt that Microsoft had pulled off a coup of sorts when it had joined hands with other brands to push Windows Phone. Steve Ballmer had appeared at an HTC event to showcase the company’s Windows Phone devices, and later, devices from Indian brands like Xolo and Micromax were showcased at Windows Phone briefings. The huge problem was that very few of these were actually visible in the market. To make matters worse, most of these brands continued to focus on Android, relegating Windows Phone to a few devices and very little in terms of publicity, although Xolo did push its Q900 as one of the world’s lightest smartphones.
7. The loss of camera edge
A hardware component as the cause of a software’s decline? Well, you need to know just how good the Lumia 920, 925, 1520 and 1020 were to understand this point. Until late 2013, the conventional wisdom was that Windows Phone devices came with the best cameras in terms of low-light photography as well as detail. People swore by the PureView series. Windows Phone also came with very good software (the Nokia camera app mimicked pro settings, and there was even a beautification app for selfies well before they became a rage). Unfortunately, things got stuck in a rut, and issues like a relatively sluggish interface, especially when compared to the extremely fast new Android devices were not addressed quickly enough. The result? Today, the Lumia brigade is large invisible in the camera phone world. Ironical, when you consider that the almost two year old Lumia 1020 still is considered by many to be the greatest camera phone ever made.
8. Living in a world of our own…
This is going to sound very cruel but to a large extent, it seemed as if Microsoft, one of the most innovative companies in the world, was in a time warp when it came to Windows Phone. The company continued to try to prove that its devices were better than Android, even though they were relatively poorly specced (“we don’t need as much hardware to run smoothly” was an argument we heard, which backfired, as many took it as a confession that Android devices had better hardware) – they even had Android and Windows Phone users don robes and spar in a boxing ring with their phones. The “Android is not secure” argument became a tired one as did the “we have hundreds of thousands of apps” and “we are a brand” (when referring to the competition from relative newcomers). The impression one increasingly had of Windows Phone was of a platform that seemed very content with where it had reached. The problem was that the consumers were not.