It’s awfully tempting to start an elegy of this sort with a schadenfreude-laced intro along the lines of ‘And they’ve gone and done it again’. However, this would be a knee-jerk and insincere way of making sense of Microsoft’s latest decision, particularly considering we’ve now had a fair bit of time to reflect on it.
To clarify, it’s the decision to discontinue support to all non-Windows 10 handheld devices to which a reference is being made and not the release of the frankly path-breaking Seeing AI app. But let’s not ignore that second bit of information quite so quickly. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the decision to publish a Seeing AI iOS app before one on any other platform (read: Windows 10) is perhaps indicative of Microsoft’s waning interest in its mobile division.
There’s no two ways about the fact that WP operating systems have been as visually appealing as they’ve been functional. The near-uncrashability of WP7, WP8 and WP8.1 is something at which many users (and erstwhile users like myself) have often marvelled. But there’s always been a gap between user demand and Microsoft’s supply somewhere or the other — whether it was the absence of original apps for YouTube, Instagram etc or the fact that OS updates took an eternity to come in. At times, it felt like the company that was set on taking major bites out of Android’s market share wasn’t all that into mobile phones anyway. And over time, this feeling grew stronger.
It was nearly 18 months ago that websites like The Verge had already begun to engrave the tombstone of the Windows Phone, citing the dwindling sales of Lumia devices as a contributory factor. Let’s stay on this for a while. If it wasn’t the limited availability of official apps, it was that Microsoft was systematically alienating sections of its user base by discontinuing support — and the associated flow of updates — to handsets, after initially assuring support.
Two clear cases in point emerge here: The initial discontinuation of OS updates to phones with 512 MB of RAM in 2015, and then, the decision to purge several WP8.1 handsets from the list of those that were originally supposed to receive the update to Windows 10 in March last year.
Each of these moves created a great sense of disappointment, anguish and anger among Microsoft faithfuls, particularly those who were early adopters of the Windows Phone and found themselves left high and dry by the Redmond tech giant.
This brings us neatly to last week’s news that Microsoft was going to be discontinuing support to WP8.1 phones (and those with an older OS). According to some sources, this amounts to cutting off 80 percent of the Windows Phone user base. And it’s not even as though there was a massive chunk of users with Windows Phones to begin with.
According to Gartner, Windows had a market share of 0.7 percent in 2016, but by May this year, Windows did not even get so much as a mention, lumped as it was in the category marked ‘Other OS’ — that also includes Blackberry — accounting for a 0.2 percent global market share.
That’s quite enough facts and figures; where does this actually leave that ever-shrinking group of mobile phone users who prefer tiles to icons, Cortana to Siri and Outlook to Gmail (well, maybe)? And if you find yourself in that set, should you go out and fling your device into the nearest water body?
For starters and in the short term, Microsoft’s announcement does not mean that your devices will stop functioning. This is worth clarifying. If you are happy with your phone as it is, then there’s no reason for panic. If, however, you were eagerly anticipating a new version of your existing OS, it’s a bit more disappointing.
In the medium-to-long term, this decision to discontinue support is a strong indication that Microsoft is hastily moving away from the mobile phone, at least the way it presently exists. CEO Satya Nadella had noted in a May interview, “I'm sure we'll make more phones, but they will not look like phones that are there today.”
Turn the clock back to 2015 and Nadella’s keynote speech at Dreamforce. The CEO used an iPhone to demonstrate how well Microsoft apps work on iOS as part of a thinly-veiled dig at Apple. Many laughs were had, but the writing was on the wall. The iPhone launch of Seeing AI furthers the strong suspicion that Microsoft is intent on bowing out of the mobile phone hardware game (in its present form, as we’re led to believe), while focusing its energies on developing cross-platform apps and software.
Viewed from the Microsoft’s point-of-view, this appears to be a case of cutting losses — recovering lost ground is impossible at this point — and trying to preempt the ‘next big thing’ by presumably creating a galaxy of apps that can seamlessly be integrated with whatever mobile device the company creates in the future.
To the consumer, this is the biggest of the three blows Microsoft has dealt to WP users, and is a virtual eviction notice to 80 percent of them. Terminating support to a mobile phone OS is like cutting off water, gas and electricity to a building with a view to getting the user/tenant to leave. For the 20-or-so percent fortunate enough to be on Windows 10, it should be viewed as a warning sign to enjoy what they have while it lasts.
It’s not completely unfathomable that Windows 10 support (for the mobile) has a very limited life cycle left to run.
In summation, if Windows Phone wasn’t dead as a concept in the past, it certainly is now.