Does anyone think it was a coincidence that Joe Belfiore’s admission Microsoft’s journey to make Windows succeed on phones was dead came just days after he had announced that Microsoft was bringing the Edge browser to Android and iOS, and had taken its Garage born Arrow Launcher for Android and rechristened it as the Microsoft Launcher? Microsoft may not have made a grand public strategic vision statement, but it sure telegraphed one.
Let’s step back for a moment to the topic of first party Microsoft apps on iOS and Android. Bringing the Office apps to non-Microsoft devices wasn’t part of a grand new mobile strategy, they were driven by the Office 365 effort. If you want someone to pay you $99/year forever, vs $150-250 every 5-10 years, then it has to work on all the devices they use. I use a consumer example, but this holds for Enterprises as well. And so the effort to bring Office clients to iOS and Android was begun under then CEO Steve Ballmer. Want confirmation that bringing Office clients to iOS and Android was about Office 365 and not a broader change in strategy? Work on Office for iOS began long before Microsoft acquired Nokia’s mobile business. Windows Phone was still the big bet.
After Satya Nadella became CEO and freed non-Windows teams to pursue strategies that were not necessarily linked to Windows, the floodgate really opened on non-Office Microsoft apps coming to iOS and Android. MSR experiments and Garage efforts generally targeted one or the other. Any team that had a mobile component to its strategy created clients for both. After all, in a Cloud world client ubiquity is important. Ballmer set Microsoft’s transition to a Cloud company in motion, Satya poured gasoline on the fire by un-shackling teams from Microsoft’s “mutually reinforcing businesses based around Windows” business model.
Separately the Windows Phone effort continued to wither. Microsoft’s purchase of Nokia was written off. Rumors of new devices, such as a Surface Phone, the birth of the Universal Windows Platform (UWP), and bridges for bringing iOS and Android apps to the UWP kept hope alive that there was a new strategy for making Windows succeed on phones. But that strategy soon unraveled. Cancellation of the Android bridge really telegraphed the death of Windows on Phones. The iOS bridge made it easier to port apps from the iPhone, and Xamarin made it easier to develop new multi-platform apps, but both relied on developers investing effort to target Windows on phones. Running Android apps, unchanged, on Windows would have been a poor user experience. But it would have closed the app gap. Once Microsoft cried uncle on the app gap, Windows on phones was dead. It took a frustrating 18 months for Microsoft to publicly acknowledge it.
I wonder how it went down. Was there a grand discussion of a new mobile phone strategy? Did Satya tell Terry “Everyone else in the company has a strategy for dealing with iOS and Android, what’s yours?”. Did the Windows team just come to the realization that they were building a bunch of new features that wouldn’t really be compelling unless they could be used in conjunction with the phones people were actually carrying? Working on something on my laptop then deciding to continue on my desktop is just “nice”. Trying to do something on my phone that is so painful you want to scream, and being able to stop and continue on a PC where it is child’s play, now that is compelling. And so we have Edge on both iOS and Android, and the Microsoft Launcher on Android to make that happen.
Top-down or bottom-up, these moves lead to the question, is there a bigger strategy here? I sure hope so. Microsoft now has all the pieces it needs to offer a preconfigured out of the box Microsoft-experience Android Phone. You can configure one yourself right now, but it is a painful and tedious process more suitable for enthusiasts than for general users. When I trashed Android a few years back one of the key reasons was the amount of time it would take to get it working the way I wanted. Manually creating a Microsoft Phone with all the pieces Microsoft has created just magnifies that complaint.
Last year I bought one of those Amazon Android phones with Offers and Ads to play with. It cost me $59, I think, and I played with it for a couple of weeks to see what Google had done with a newer version of Android. It never even had a SIM in it. After the Microsoft Launcher announcement I found it in my collection of abandoned toys and decided to try to configure it as a Microsoft Phone. It took me a while, but I got it close. I stopped when I realized cramming all that Microsoft goodness into a phone with only 8GB was a challenge. I had to remove the Amazon apps. I had to start removing parts of the Google ecosystem as well, which strategically is more of a concern. And a phone that was already sluggish became even more so. But then I was configuring an older entry-level phone the way a power user might configure a new mid-range or flagship device. Ignore the negatives, it was entirely possible to create a Microsoft-centric experience on an Android phone.
Having a bunch of pieces that users can take and configure varying levels of Microsoft-experience on their phones is good. On iOS it is the only option. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft approached Apple about how to offer more of a Microsoft-experience iOS phone. Given Microsoft’s enthusiasm for Android lately we can guess that Apple wasn’t very receptive. But the bunch of pieces approach is quite limited, and on Android Microsoft could go much further. It could work with OEMs to create Microsoft experience versions of devices that have pre-built Android images that come configured with Microsoft Launcher, Edge, etc. Or it could find a way to do a one-button setup of the Microsoft experience. I can think of one way to make that possible, but perhaps there are multiple. In any case, it would be a step well beyond the Microsoft Apps app or what they’ve done with the Samsung Galaxy S8 Microsoft Edition.
Is there anything Microsoft should NOT do? Yes, they shouldn’t try to hide or bury the other Android goodness. Block installation of arbitrary applications from Google Play? Death. Have a OOBE experience that doesn’t embrace the Google ecosystem in parallel with the Microsoft ecosystem? Death. Lock the device to Bing? Death. In other words, Microsoft Phone is a true Android Phone with a Microsoft-centric experience on it, not something that has Android underneath but a completely different user experience and app ecosystem ala the Amazon Fire Phone’s Fire OS.
So what will 2018 and 2019 bring? So far Microsoft has been pretty cautious about its approach to Microsoft Phone, and I expect that to continue in 2018. They need to bring Edge to GA. Microsoft Launcher needs to mature some more. Keep improving the Cortana experience on Android. They probably have other apps and experiences in the works that will be released individually. Maybe they can find a way to make multi-app installation easier, or even have a one-button “make it a Microsoft Phone” answer sometime during the year.
While Samsung and other large OEMs want devices that have their own OOBE, small players like BLU seem willing to try multiple things. BLU does Amazon offers and ads phones, they also had offered Windows Phones. It would probably be easy to get them to make a pre-configured Microsoft-experience Android Phone. I’d be mildly surprised if Microsoft pushes hard on preconfigured Microsoft-experience devices in 2018. Given Microsoft’s failure with Windows Phone, they would be better off with a humble approach. Keep building the base of users who are willing and able to self-configure a Microsoft-experience until it reaches the point where there is strong market pull for preconfigured devices. Maybe that happens a year from now, but it is a safer bet that it happens in 2019.
Whatever the details of how it plays out, a replacement strategy for Windows Phone is finally apparent. It is Android, brought to you by the Windows team.