Saturday 18 November 2017

iPhone and Android win out as Microsoft pulls plug on Windows handset

The tech giant no longer lists Windows phones for sale on its own Microsoft store
The tech giant no longer lists Windows phones for sale on its own Microsoft store

Is Microsoft finally pulling the plug on Windows phones? It certainly looks like the company is withdrawing its handset business from the Irish market.

The tech giant no longer lists Windows phones for sale on its own Microsoft store. The three biggest phone operators here are winding down their Windows phones, with just one model each and no plans to replace them - and the company itself has even stopped supporting older phones with key services.

Put simply, Windows phones have been crushed by the iPhone and Android.

Sales have fallen to below 1pc in the Irish market. From having 4.7pc of the Irish market three years ago, usage now stands at 1.3pc, according to Statcounter.

Software giants like Facebook and Google have taken note. Facebook is to cease supporting its Messenger service on Windows phones that use version 8.1 of the software (a majority of current Windows phones, according to Kantar Research).

Snapchat and YouTube, which never launched versions of their services for Windows phones, have been utterly vindicated.

For years, I've been writing that you're at a disadvantage if you get a Windows phone.

The problem has never been the hardware, especially with Nokia Lumia devices. It was always the 'app gap'. There are simply far too many critical everyday apps missing from the ecosystem. There are no Google apps (Maps, Search, Gmail, Docs), for example. Or Snapchat. None of the banks here support apps for Windows phones, which is a major pain. Sky and Virgin Media are the same - you can't watch your TV on the go with a Windows mobile device in the same way you can with Android or iOS.

Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram are in there alright, but Windows users are always relegated to last place when it comes to new features. Even rival divisions of Microsoft itself are abandoning the Windows Mobile operating system. Minecraft, which Microsoft owns, won't be updated for Windows Phone any more, while Skype will also not be supported on some versions of the mobile Windows operating system.

As Windows Phone usage withers, with little by way of new investment from Microsoft, the problem is getting worse rather than better.

In Ireland, the phones are still used by employees some public sector and government organisations, which negotiated bulk discounted deals to buy into the ecosystem. Many of Microsoft's own employees are also stuck using the phone.

The smattering of others who still have a Windows phone include those who were given one as part of some €99 deal and for whom it was a first smartphone. There is also still a very small niche who are loyal to Nokia, which Microsoft bought in 2013 as a hardware vehicle for its nascent Windows mobile operating system.

But with Microsoft pulling the plug on sales here, both these markets may now run dry. There is simply no further upgrade cycle being offered.

Over the last year, I have spoken to numerous senior global Microsoft executives about Windows Phone, its future and its apparent lack of new updates from Microsoft. All have reiterated the company line that Windows Phone's future lies in being a complementary device to laptops and PCs, where content and computing activity can seamlessly continue. It's ironic, so, that one of the most impressive features of Samsung's new S8 superphone is its PC dock which completes what Microsoft has been trying to do. For those who haven't seen this, it's a dock that plugs into a monitor, displaying a large screen PC-ified version of your Samsung S8's Android screen. But it's displayed in a proportionately horizontal layout and works with a mouse and keyboard. It's a very functional, usable Android takeover of the desktop PC. And it's powered by the phone itself, thanks to an incredibly souped-up chip.

To be fair to Microsoft, it probably had no choice but to retreat with Windows Phone. Its reorganisation of its business priorities has meant means a focus on business software and services in the cloud. That means its phone business is a distraction and a costly one at that - it has already had to write off almost all of what it paid for Nokia (€7bn) as a financial flop. Windows Phone might stagger on for a while. But to most, it's gone.

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