RIP, WindowsPhone

tl;dr It would seem, based on some reports, that WindowsPhone is officially dying if not dead. While I hate to see competitors dropping out of an already too-few-players market, it was high time Microsoft simply acknowledged that it had lost this fight, and focus its efforts elsewhere.

If you’ve not seen the reports by now, you’ve not been paying attention. They are definitely everywhere you look. The final drop in the bucket (perhaps) came within the last day or two, as Microsoft announced that it is laying off a sizable chunk of its WindowsPhone division, and “taking a charge” (meaning write off a sizable loss on its corporate taxes) of about a billion USD, which when combined with the loss it already took when it sold off its share in Nokia hardware a little bit ago, means that Microsoft has basically written off the same amount of money as what it spent to get here in the first place.

This is not what a healthy consumer smartphone device market looks like.

In fact, reports are starting to emerge now that Microsoft is beginning to realize that this is simply not a market in which they can take a substantive chunk (much less lead):

When asked why the company made no mention of Windows Phone during a keynote lasting nearly three hours, Terry Myerson, the head of Windows, told The Verge that “we’re fully committed to that 4-inch screen” but “it’s the wrong place for us to lead”.

That’s a pretty clear-cut statement from a pretty high-up executive.

It’s about time… and money… and marketing… and…

It’s a move that’s long overdue. Microsoft was late to get into the smartphone game, and when it did, it made several critical mistakes, including one that drove me absolutely nuts: they simply didn’t seem to care about people building applications for their platform.

Personal anecdote: A few years ago I was working for a consulting company that was sponsoring a Sharepoint event with Microsoft. We wanted to do a “photo scavenger hunt” kind of experience, where participants could download the app, take photos to go along with a few captions, and submit them to a crowdsourced pool of judges. We wanted the app to be available for iOS, Android and WindowsPhone. The iOS app was done, and I cranked out a creaky port of it to Androidin about two weeks. But the WindowsPhone app, which had been done for weeks, was awaiting approval into the Store, and less than a week before the conference event, it was rejected by the powers-that-were at the Window Store, because one of the buttons had the wrong background color for the dark color scheme in the application. Resubmitting wasn’t going to get it approved in time, so we scrapped the entire effort. All over the background color of a single button in the dark color scheme. It was in that moment that I realized that whomever was managing the Windows Store didn’t really understand just how far behind the other two they really were, and that this meant the platform was essentially doomed.

The fact is, though, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Microsoft simply cannot afford to try and fight wars on every possible front in the technology universe. There is no other company that seeks to compete on as many fronts as they are fighting, and frankly, it dilutes your effort and investment. Remember when Ballmer said Microsoft was “all in” on the cloud? He then repeated that same sentiment about three or four other things at various times after that, and essentially undermined any faith he might have created that Microsoft actually had some kind of focus.

Satya seems to be more aware of this (thankfully), and while I doubt Microsoft is going to divest itself from too many more of those fronts, it simply makes sense that they are admitting what the rest of the market (and consumers) already know—that the consumer smartphone space belongs to two different platforms (Android and iOS) for the forseeable future.

This “strategic march to the rear” (as retreats are sometimes called) will allow Microsoft to take cut some of its loss-inducing business, bringing its profitability up, and increasing investor confidence. That’s important to them as a company. It will also allow them to cherry-pick the best engineer and marketing resources out of that division, and put them to work on other projects that could benefit from their skills and experience, such as Surface (which is going much stronger than many—including me—ever thought would happen) or some of Microsoft’s more stalwart markets (SQLServer, .NET, XBox, Azure, and so on). Which is also good.

Going forward

So what does this mean to the Microsoft-encamped developer who is thinking about mobile apps? To me, there’s a couple of takeaways:

  • You can’t stay entirely inside the Microsoft castle anymore. There was a time, even not that long ago, when a developer could effectively spend his/her entire career inside of Visual Studio, both figuratively and literally, and not pay any attention to what was going on outside those Redmondian-erected walls. Those days are now, officially, done. (They were actually done some years ago, but now it’s plain for everyone to see.) Microsoft doesn’t have everything you want or need inside of its walled enclosure anymore—you’re going to have to wander outside the walls and down to some other parts of the world to accomplish everything you need to do.
  • Microsoft still wants you to spend most of your life inside those walls. Make no mistake about it, though, Microsoft is still the same company it always was—they want you to be safely esconced inside the Microsoft enclosure. This is why they purchased Xamarin and have spent a ton of energy and effort bringing various language platforms inside both Visual Studio and Azure: so that you can still spend all your time inside Visual Studio, even if you’re not writing code in a Microsoft language for a Microsoft runtime. That trend will continue for the forseeable future.
  • Microsoft is not giving up on Surface. Matter of fact, there’s now rumors of a “Surface Phone” to replace the fumbling WindowsPhone. So if you’re still one of those few who are convinced that the WindowsPhone was better than anything you’ve ever used, keep hope.
  • But accept that for now, it’s an iOS-and-Android world. You don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to pretend to like it. But the people who are using the apps that your customers want you to build are using iOS and Android devices, and if you’re going to satisfy your customers, you’re going to need to build applications for those hardware/OS combinations.
  • Xamarin will now take front and center stage. And fortunately for all of us who like writing code in a .NET language but want to write iOS and/or Android applications, Microsoft has (finally) rectified a situation they should’ve handled years ago, with the purchase of Xamarin. Now, it can take front-and-center stage at //build/, MiX, TechEd, or whatever they’re going to call their company developer events. They can start by putting Roslyn in front of the Xamarin toolchain (and pipelining that into the Mono distribution too), so that there’s no duplication of effort around the C# and VisualBasic languages, and maybe even figure out how to get Roslyn to emit LLVM bitcode, so that we can take full advantage of a pretty rich compiler toolchain on the Mac and Linux.
  • Microsoft can now start talking better strategic partnerships. Most of all, now Microsoft can have some conversations with Apple and Google about how best to partner up, since now the obvious elephant in the room (competing hardware/OS offerings) isn’t there anymore. For example, Microsoft could start looking for ways to put their Edge browser onto iOS or Android (the former will require a lot of negotiation; the latter just some engineering effort), if that seems like a desirable thing (which I’m not sure it is), or Microsoft could even negotiate with Apple to set Bing as the default search engine of choice for Safari on iOS, so as to freeze Google out a little bit. And so on.

At the end of the day, this whole thing isn’t so much a cause for anguish or anxiety as it is a feeling of relief. That feeling when you cast somebody out of your life who’s been a constant drag on your time, energy and mood, and realize that suddenly, you’ve got this feeling like a weight has been lifted from your soul.

Rest in Peace, WindowsPhone. Perhaps you didn’t deserve the fate you got, but it’s time to set your soul free and perhaps see you reincarnated into something else later.