No, Bill, Microsoft Did NOT Miss the Mobile Bus

…but it sure did not hang on to its seat

by: - Last updated on: November 19th, 2019

The antitrust lawsuit was bad for Microsoft, and we would have been more focused on creating the phone operating system. And so instead of using Android today, you would be using Windows Mobile…

That quote from Microsoft co-founder and former CEO Bill Gates at the New York Times DealBook Conference has been making the rounds of tech circles for a few days now. And of course, it has inspired a lot of debate. Opinion was divided over whether Gates was right or wrong – would we all really have been using Windows Mobile if the company (and he himself) had not been distracted by the antitrust trial that Microsoft was embroiled in, or was he overestimating the power of his brand’s mobile OS in a classic case of wishful “it might have been” thinking?

bill gates windows mobile

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

Gates assumption that everyone would have jumped on to the Windows Mobile bandwagon if Microsoft had got the operating system ready on time is perhaps a little far fetched. In his interview, Gates says that the company was very close to delivering a version of Windows Mobile for a Motorola phone in 2009 (many think it was the Droid), and that this cost it the chance to be the mobile OS leader. Now, while there is no doubting the popularity of the Droid, it would be naive to assume that it was the sole reason for Android’s success. No, the real reason for the success of the platform was its relative openness and the fact that it was adopted by multiple brands and offered at different price points – almost any brand could make an Android phone. We doubt such liberality would have been available with Windows Mobile, given Microsoft’s track record of collaborations.

It is also kind of difficult to believe that Microsoft was unable to focus on a mobile phone OS because it was distracted. And that this is the reason why we are using Android rather than Windows Mobile today.

For the simple reason that Microsoft did seem to have been able to focus on creating a new mobile phone OS. Not just that, this new mobile phone OS actually seemed to have the capability of challenging Android.

I am referring to Windows Phone. And I think Gates was referring to it as well. Windows Mobile was already a has-been by the time the Droid was coming around with people stepping away from styluses. In fact, Microsoft had already reorganized the Windows Mobile group and begun work on a new OS in 2008. Yes, its release was delayed (perhaps that was the Droid opportunity that Gates was talking about) but when it did hit the market in 2010, it did not do too badly for a while.

Windows Phone was developed to be better suited for capacitive touchscreens – Windows Mobile’s touch avatar depended on styluses, remember – and was for a while, a formidable proposition for Android. It was very different from Android with its tiled interface and although not as flexible as Google’s OS in some regards, had the gift of being incredibly fluid and smooth to use – a result evidently of Microsoft keeping a tight control on its hardware requirements.

And it hit its high noon arguably in the period of 2012-14, when the Nokia Lumia 520 outsold every Android device in its price band and showed the world that it was perfectly possible for a phone that cost about Rs 10,000 to perform smoothly (before the Moto G and Moto E came along, incidentally). The phone ran up sales of about 12 million units in little more than a year (Want perspective? Realme took about a year to sell 10 million units across all models), becoming the best-selling Windows Phone of its time. For that period, Windows Phone was very much in Android’s face.

windows mobile

And then everything went terribly pear-shaped for the OS. The jury is still out on what went wrong. The convenient theory of course is that the platform did not have the requisite number of apps, but the fact is that the Lumia 520 actually came with just 512 MB of RAM, which did not let it run many apps (Temple Run most memorably) and still sold a number of units. So clearly, apps were not the sole reason for the platform running out of steam. The arrival of super affordable Chinese Android smartphones might have also played a role in Windows Phone’s demise – 2013-14 was the period which saw the emergence of the likes of OnePlus and Xiaomi, remember? And well, there is also the theory that Microsoft’s Nokia takeover might actually have harmed the platform instead of benefiting it. Perhaps the truth is a blend of all these, or perhaps there is some part of the tale that we have not been told yet.

So, no, we do not know what really went wrong with Windows Phone. What we DO know is that for a brief time, it did threaten Android. Notwithstanding Gates claim of being “too distracted” and having “screwed up because of that distraction,” Microsoft did not miss the mobile OS bus. It might have got on board late, but it made space for itself, and made its co-passengers nervous as hell.

Unfortunately, it did not hang on to its seat. And as anyone who has travelled in a bus will tell you, that is a fatal mistake for anyone on a long trip.

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