At this point, it’s no secret that Microsoft effectively killed off its Windows Phone mobile OS. In 2017, it announced the end of additional features for its failing platform. This is hardly a surprise, as Microsoft’s market share amounted to less than 0.5% of overall smartphone users. Even for a company the size of Microsoft, which can afford to take a major hit or two to their bottom line to gain entry into new markets, Windows Phone proved to be an unmitigated disaster. As Steve Ballmer later admitted in an interview, even the acquisition of phone veteran Nokia for $7.1bn failed to save the mobile operating system. So what went wrong? How could one of the biggest names in technology fail to get a foothold in the mobile arena? The answer comes down a weak app ecosystem.
Putting Developers First
Consider Microsoft’s chief rivals in the mobile arena: Android and Apple. They have two completely different approaches when it comes to how software is distributed through their online marketplaces. Android tends to be more of a ‘wild west’ setting, with hundreds of thousands of apps all vying for downloads. Android’s vetting process for listing apps on their storefront is less rigorous than Apple’s, a fact that has lead to periodic outbreaks of malware and adware apps. Yet the no-holds-barred approach has allowed app developers to flourish on the platform. No app creator developing software for Android worries about finding users.
Apple, on the other hand, takes a more involved approach to ensuring the minimum level of quality of apps listed on their store. Developers are put under far more scrutiny than on Android, and the terms of service for Apple’s App Store allows Apple to pull down apps at will. Nonetheless, Apple supports their developers. With integrated development environments like Xcode supporting forward-looking languages like Swift, the barrier of entry to becoming an iOS developer is much lower than that of Windows Phone.
A Vicious Cycle
Microsoft was never able to overcome these two core issues. They weren’t able to compete with the massive user base and ubiquity of Android devices sold around the world. Their development tools, reliance on the relatively old and impenetrable language of C++ for their native apps, and overly complex Windows Phone framework were unappealing to veteran mobile app developers used to working on iOS. With so little incentive for developers to bring their existing apps over to Windows Phone, Microsoft was stuck in a negative feedback loop. Developers didn’t want to waste time and resources on creating software for an unpopular platform. The platform never increased in popularity because staple apps weren’t willing to make the jump. The downward spiral never ended for Microsoft.
Looking to the Future
It would be naïve to suggest that no other mobile operating system will eventually supplant iOS and Android. The technology industry is prone to disruption and innovation. Existing leaders today always run the risk of becoming the next Xerox or Blackberry. But if a new operating system is going to give Android or iOS a run for their money, it’s going to have to accommodate developers. It will need to use a native language that’s powerful, but easy to learn and flexible. Its storefront will need to keep malware out, but still embrace upstarts and new ideas. Finally, it must have access to the users that form the backbone of apps like Venmo, Snapchat, and other hit apps. We don’t know what the next big mobile OS will be, but we know that its creators will look back on Microsoft’s attempt for cues on what not to do to succeed.