It has been nearly two years since Microsoft introduced a new Windows phone. Sure, HP is still making Windows phones and marketing them to businesses, but Microsoft has been basically silent on the subject of its flagging mobile platform since 2015. There have been zero flagship devices, despite the persistent rumors of a super Surface phone. Logic dictates that Microsoft needs to get in the game here. People are increasingly moving away from their laptops and onto their smartphones, and if Microsoft wants to keep up with Apple and Google, it will need a convincing phone platform.
“I’m sure we’ll make more phones,” Nadella told host Molly Wood, “but they will not look like phones that are there today.”
Let’s step back for a moment. Windows 10 on a phone today has two things going for it. First, the interface is gorgeous—sleek and minimalist, without any of the cutesy affectations that iOS and Android have collected over the years. Second, the phones function as mini PCs thanks to Continuum, so you can phone during the day and then dock it at your monitor and keyboard for a traditional PC experience at night. But the current version of Windows on mobile phones, Windows 10 Mobile, was introduced waaaaaay back in 2015 alongside Microsoft’s last flagship, the Lumia 950. (You’ll recall that Microsoft took over the Lumia brand from old Windows Phone stalwart Nokia in 2013.)
It’s no surprise the next flagship is slow to appear. Windows for a phone was already late to the scene when Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 in 2010. By then, Apple was a powerhouse with the iPhone, and Google had forged a worthy competitor with great Android devices like the Motorola Droid. But Microsoft’s mobile look was so radically cool, it conceivably had a chance to be a true contender.
At the time, even Gizmodo was enraptured. “Everything’s different now,” we wrote.
In a way that proved very true. Only instead of radically disrupting the mobile phone market, Microsoft saw itself playing a distant third fiddle to the titans, Apple and Google. Everything really was different. Microsoft was accustomed to making the best-selling OS, and its failure to find its way into the lucrative mobile market left Microsoft scrambling. First there was the massive Windows 8 redesign that spanned mobile and desktop devices. Then Cortana came in 8.1, giving Windows phones a digital assistant to rival Siri. In 2015, Microsoft introduced Continuum, which let phone users plug their devices into a monitor and keyboard and get a Windows experience similar to the one enjoyed by desktop users.
But as cool as Microsoft’s attempts at competing have been, the company has failed to break into the elite mobile OS inner ring. By the time it arrived, users had already bought into the Android and iOS ecosystems, and developers, who were already building apps for two mobile operating systems, had little desire to add a third, far less lucrative one to their roadmaps. Sure, the many iterations of Windows for phones looked nice enough, and had the backing of Microsoft, but its constant game of catch up with Apple and Google made the phones built for the platforms unappealing. “There’s just no reason to choose a pricey Windows handset when Google and Apple offer way better options,” Gizmodo’s Mario Aguilar said back in 2015. That hasn’t changed, and it’s one of the reasons why, just last month, Android overtook Windows as the most installed OS in the world, according to one estimation.
Hopefully, this two-year-long news void in the mobile phone market is the result of Microsoft working like hell to make something new. Microsoft can’t gain a measurable share of the smartphone market (and thus interest from app developers) without first making a product consumers really want to buy, and it can’t do that without wildly wowing us with hardware radically different than what the likes of Apple and Samsung currently provide.
As we noted last year, smartphones have become universally so good they’re boring, and they’re also so expensive now, that people are moving away from the two-year purchase cycle. Microsoft not only has to make a great phone, it has to be a disruptive one—and there’s no clear path to such a device apparent in the stable of phones on the market.
In other words, Microsoft needs to blow our collective minds.
So what would a future Windows phone look like? Ahead of Microsoft’s hardware event last week, we might have hoped for a cloud-based phone, but that dream was shuttered when the long-rumored Windows 10 Cloud was officially named Windows 10 S. Instead of being a window into the cloud computing future, Windows 10 S resembles lightweight Windows variations like Windows RT and Windows 8.1 with Bing. It’s not cloud-based, but rooted in the computer and inextricably linked to Windows’ wasteland of an app Store.
And that Store isn’t going to just improve overnight. As already noted, Microsoft needs a robust stable of developers in order to bring in mobile users, but developers want a large user base before they dedicate time and money to a platform. So Microsoft is left at a frustratingly cyclical impasse. Which means whatever we see is going to have to be so different, so wild, that neither developers nor consumers will care.
Get cracking Microsoft. We’re ready for that Surface Phone.