From bad to worse: The sad reality about Windows Phones

Windows 10 Mobile is still under active development, but nobody's buying—and Microsoft seems to be okay with that.

lumia 950
Credit: Rob Schultz

Everybody loves smartphones, but almost nobody loves Windows smartphones.

A majority (78 percent) of all mobile phones sold worldwide between January and March were smartphones, and smartphones sales grew by 4 percent compared to the same time period the year previous, according to a recent report by market research firm Gartner. Yet with all that smartphone activity, Windows phone sales fell even further. Actually, the word “fell” is being generous. The truth is they crashed.

Hard.

Windows mobile device market share fell below the one percent mark worldwide to 0.7 percent during the first quarter of 2016, according to Gartner. Just one year ago, Windows device sales were anemic at 2.5 percent, but that’s still many times better compared to where they are now.

Just as we saw after Microsoft’s financial results in January, Gartner’s report will support the endless parade of articles (like this one) proclaiming Windows phones dead—or at least more dead than it was before.

But judging by Microsoft’s actions, not much is being done to right the ship.

Nobody’s making Windows phones

In its recent report, Gartner estimates there were 2.4 million Windows phones sold between January and March. Microsoft reported in April that it sold 2.3 million phones during the same time period. If Gartner is right, that means about 96 percent of Windows device sales came from Microsoft.

That’s a problem since Microsoft recently hinted that it will not make any more Lumia devices. The long-rumored Surface phone is also looking like a no-show for 2016. In March, Microsoft’s Windows chief said mobile was not the company’s focus for the remainder of year.

hp elite x3 with continuum feb 2016 Melissa Riofrio

Continuum lets a phone mirror its display on a monitor. Both the Desk Dock (shown) and the Mobile Extender have additional ports for connectivity. 

That leaves third parties to create devices. Short of experiments with Continuum, like HP’s Elite x3, there’s almost no incentive for phone makers to tinker with Windows 10 Mobile. Carriers are unlikely to market a new Windows device in any significant way, and it’s an open question whether enterprises truly want a fleet of Continuum-enabled phones in the wild.

Without Microsoft, Windows 10 Mobile hardware development will most likely be all but non-existent. 

Apps

Then there’s the app question. Microsoft’s only hope for a bigger selection of Windows 10 Mobile apps is if more developers work on universal Windows platform (UWP) apps. The idea is that a UWP app can support PCs, tablets, the Xbox One, and phones alike with some effort on the developer’s part.

But developers aren’t required to release UWP apps that support all form factors, and some of the biggest services around are bypassing Windows Phones. Twitter’s Vine recently came to the Windows Store in UWP form absent a mobile version. True, there’s already a Windows Phone 8.x version available, but if converting an app built for Windows 10 PCs to Windows 10 Mobile is so easy why hasn’t Twitter done it yet?

Windows 10 Build 10080 app store Mark Hachman

Then there’s Facebook. In late April, the company released UWP versions of Facebook and Messenger. That release was also PC/tablet only, with no mobile versions in sight. Facebook says the UWP versions will land on mobile later this year, which once again suggests the conversion process isn’t so simple.

Still not enough

Assuming that Facebook and Twitter are just too lazy to tweak a few lines of code, a strong UWP app selection still means we’ll see an app store filled with holes. Microsoft’s UWP strategy depends on developers that are creating apps for PCs and tablets to make that extra effort to support phones. Even if that happens, Windows 10 Mobile users will only get apps that make sense for PCs and tablets first. Phone-centric apps like Snapchat will continue to be no shows.

A silver lining quickly going gray

The only sliver of hope for the future is that Microsoft is still actively developing Windows 10 Mobile software. As long as that continues there’s always hope, but signs of rebirth for Windows 10 Mobile need to happen now.

The Windows Store needs to get a larger roster of top tier apps before the end of 2016. On top of that, we need to see a jaw dropping phone coupled with enthusiastic carrier support that puts the phone in millions of hands.

If either of those pieces are missing it will be just more of the same: dismal sales and lagging developer support.

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