The Windows Phone ‘Twilight Zone’
We are in a Windows Phone ‘Twilight Zone’. No flagship device since last year’s summer, apps fleeing a stalled platform left, right and center, and barely a Windows Phone to be found in a network carrier store. What a time to be alive! But what exactly is going on right now, and more to the point, when will it end?
It’s a tricky thing to be a fan of Windows Phone these days. Yes, it’s blindingly obvious that Windows 10 mobile is just around the corner, and once that corner has been turned (and it’ll most likely be November, if not December by then) we all hope that things will appear to bode well for our beloved platform. But what if they don’t change that much?
I often chat with my techie friends about the state of Windows Phone and I am often asked why I am still so staunchly ‘for’ it, despite the platform having some serious problems right now. I concede that Windows Phone needs some serious help in the app department, but when I say that, I’m speaking on behalf of the many mobile users out there and not really for me, personally. I can live quite happily without some of the big-name, popular apps right now, but I know many simply could not. For them, switching away from either their Androids or their iPhones would make them just miserable because they rely – on a daily basis – on the very apps that are missing from Windows Phone. It’s easy for geekanoids like myself to scoff and roll my eyes at the mention of ‘Snapchat’, but to a lot of people, that app is almost becoming their main social media platform. And even if it isn’t a huge deal to people every day, a massive number of phone users would be unhappy to ‘settle’ for a platform that lacks it, because, quite simply, friends like to share experiences together, however asinine, because that’s where fun usually lives. The only time I’ve hankered after Snapchat is when I was visiting a summer camp I used to work at full-time, and all of the adults who were working (and living) with me were constantly chuckling at various Snapchat photos that were going around. This Windows Phone user felt somewhat excluded from all the hilarity. “Hey, Andy, why aren’t you on this, it’s hil-ar-ious!” they said to me as I tried ever-so hard to join in with the laughs. Hmm. Telling them that Snapchat wasn’t on my choice of platform was met with sheer bewilderment at both the possibility of Snapchat not being available for somebody toting a smartphone, and also that I seemed to be ok with that. Which I am, but clearly, not 100% of the time.
For others (those who are in the dating game) apps such as ‘Grindr’ and ‘Hinge’ are all they use all day long. However there is the excellent “6Tin” version of the extremely popular ‘Tinder’ dating app for Windows Phone. And then there are those apps that you may find extremely useful for time to time, like ‘Seamless’ for ordering food, or the new eBay-style app ‘Close 5’, or a store app like ‘Bed Bath and Beyond’ or ‘Fresh Direct’ or ‘Target’ or ‘Walmart’. There are new apps being advertised on the New York subway such as ‘Wanderu’ for cheap bus tickets, ‘Task Rabbit’ for those who need help with their everyday chores, and ‘MiniBar’ for those who absolutely, positively must have booze delivered at their home or office at a convenient time.
Some companies do take the time, and when you see the “Download from the Windows Phone Store” badge on posters or on websites, it almost shocks you. Hobby Lobby (the crafts store) is one such company that seems to be brave enough to offer their app on all three major platforms.
When travelling, you might discover a restaurant or other place of interest that has an app available that you’d download just for a short time, but you’d find it useful to have. The trouble is, none of the previous apps I’ve mentioned (as far as I know) are available for Windows Phone. Another example is for ‘Foxwoods’ casino and resort; an in-house app is available to iPhone and Android users only, so while we were there recently, we couldn’t take advantage of that, which might have been useful as we tried to navigate our way around the large complex. It’s beginning to get tiresome telling my wife, “No, nope, that app isn’t available for your phone.” (She uses a Lumia 1020).
Will the app issue ever be solved? Well, maybe. With the projects announced by Microsoft earlier this year in the form of two initiatives code-named “Project Astoria” and “Project Islandwood”, Android and iPhone apps can be ported over to Windows 10 with very little tweaking and massaging of code. Part of living in this ‘Twilight Zone’ is having to stand still and wait, and wonder if these two seemingly-excellent porting ‘bridges’ will actually help Windows on our phones or not, and it’ll be interesting to see if developers do indeed take the time to port their work over. It’s a time to patiently tread water now though, as we watch new apps coming into the mobile space all the time, but bypassing Windows Phone because, let’s face it, why would a developer spend the time – and more importantly the money – on creating a third version of their app for an ever-dwindling number of Windows Phone users out there? The hope of course, is that come October/November/December they will want to run and jump onto the chugging Windows 10 train. But it’s only a hope, not a certainty.
What else? Well, it doesn’t help that the iPhone and Android phones have pretty much tied up the mobile market, almost completely. I think it’s easy to argue that if Windows Phone was compelling enough it would draw people away from those two platforms; indeed I think it is, but I am part of a minuscule group of Windows Phone fans who think this. And I do think that non-Windows Phone fans think it’s compelling too, as those friends and family members who I’ve “sold” Windows Phone to have all, all really enjoyed using their Lumias, and still do so today as far as I know. But there are some, like my sister for example, who has found an almost natural affiliation with her iPhone 6, and no amount of cajoling from me could get her to switch, despite there being perfectly adequate Windows Phone versions for some of the apps she uses like Instagram (6Tag), Amazon and BBC iPlayer. Except, again, that isn’t really the full picture at all. If she’s carting her kids around at a theme park for the day, and said park offers a free app to iPhone users to help them manage their visit, she’ll grab it. If she wants to place an order with her favourite supermarket for home delivery, she can grab their app and do it on either her iPhone or iPad. The same goes for her gym, her car insurance company, a local store, a friend’s start-up, a baby food and clothing website… the list goes on and on. And again, nearly all of the apps she uses on a day-to-day basis are not available on Windows Phone. So even if she was willing to try something different and I was able to show her the pluses and perks of using a Windows Phone like the Live Tiles or Cortana or fully downloadable maps for offline use, I’m sure she would find the UI intuitive and easy and she’d be ok with it. But the app problem would completely turn her away from it very quickly.
So yes, Windows Phone can be seen as a compelling platform from my heavily-biased point of view, but when it comes to the average user (the majority, by the way!) they will always gravitate towards what they are comfortable with, which nine times out of ten is what all of their friends are using (which are probably iPhones) and their minds are already made up even before the carrier store associate has had their chance to promote the iPhone or the S6 Edge, perhaps also pushing what they like and use. Windows Phone hardly comes into the conversation. It’s seen as an also-ran, like Blackberry. Anyone with any sense would go for an iPhone or a decent Android phone these days, right? Who wants to be seen out and about with a weird, what-is-that ‘Loomya-Nokia-Windows’ thingy? Very few of us, if the figures are to be believed.
So, the Twilight Zone. August 2015 and we are firmly in it. What else? Here in the USA, if you actually did want to buy a Windows Phone it’s actually quite difficult, which clearly is not helping the consumer to choose it. Your choices are very, very thin indeed. Here is what I managed to find online just now:
Sprint (4th largest carrier): Lumia 635
T-Mobile (3rd largest carrier): Lumia 635, Lumia 640
AT&T (2nd largest carrier): Lumia 635, Lumia 640, Lumia 640 XL
Verizon (the largest carrier): Lumia 735, HTC One (M8), LG Lancet
Others such as Virgin Mobile, Metro PCS, and Cricket: Lumia 635, Lumia 640
No flagships anywhere. The top-notch (if now aging) goodies like the Lumia 930 (sold as a Verizon-exclusive here as the “Icon”), the 830 and 1520 are not even available in any of the carriers’ stores, not on their brick-and-mortar shops nor online. They are certainly available on Amazon and Expansys and places like that, but who buys their mobile phone like that? Not very many, I’d bet. Probably only the people reading this post to be honest. And this means that members of the public have an extremely short list from which to choose, and none of them are top-end phones that could match the iPhone 6, LG G4, HTC One M9 or the Samsung Galaxy S6, all of which incidentally are heavily marketed in TV ads.
But… and it is quite a big but… Windows 10 has already shown itself to be a versatile and somewhat beloved platform for PCs, and it’s hardly been out for a month. The momentum seems like it could be a viable reason for one to think that Windows 10 Mobile could do well. But maybe it won’t. Microsoft have an uphill slog trying to convince people to switch from their iPhone or their G4 to a new, shiny Windows 10 Lumia. The razzamatazz of July 29th shouldn’t be seen as a guarantee of success for the mobile side of things; someone successfully upgrading their Windows 7 laptop to Windows 10 is not the same thing! Yet the positivity that has oozed out of the Windows 10 launch might just have the halo-effect that Microsoft are hoping for in the mobile space. Perhaps not even with consumers at first, but with developers. If Windows 10 is seen to be this great operating system that everyone must have everywhere, it will surely encourage developers of the types of apps I mentioned above to spend a small amount of time to throw their code over the Astoria/Islandwood Bridges, opening up and exposing a new (and potentially huge) portion of the market to their work. Who knows, time will tell.
As this period of ‘dead time’ becomes ever more apparent, new flagship hardware becomes even more desperately needed. Even today, Microsoft announced a new phone, albeit a budget-range Nokia candybar-style phone, the “222”. Tech enthusiasts were quick to post on Twitter their frustration at a launch of a phone that was about as far away from being a flagship as you could possibly get. This frustration bores out other long-felt frustrations too. Recently on the ‘Phones Show Chat’ podcast, the venerable Richard Yates talked about how flawed the Nokia acquisition was by Microsoft, and how it was, in fact, a purchase of “an idea” rather than anything they were going to actually make any decent money out of. He pointed out that, if Project Astoria were to be a success, then what you would end up with is a Lumia phone running Windows but with Android apps shoved on top, which isn’t exactly that far off the whole idea behind the Nokia “X” range of phones that appeared a year ago. The Nokia X certainly appeared to resemble a Windows Phone UI, and yet with some tinkering could not only accept Android apps from the Amazon and Yandex Android stores, but could also allow Google Play services as well. With Project Astoria (and Islandwood) on the horizon, one could argue that instead of investing more heavily in their own Windows Phone platform and making it easier for developers to code native Windows Phone apps, they are actually using an idea (that they have, essentially, now purchased) to try and solve their problem.
It remains to be seen if Microsoft can execute the next big step in their Windows 10 strategy as well as they did with the desktop side of things. I for one hope they can, and I hope they market it with creative and ubiquitous advertising to allow Windows 10 Mobile to seep into the average consumer’s conscience, so that they might choose one of the new Lumia devices over a possible iPhone 6s at Christmas time. It seems like it could be a long-shot, but stranger things have happened. And if not the consumer, well then, the developer. Because apps is what is needed for Windows right now and we’re not going to get it on Windows Phone 8.1. The platform is essentially tombstoned at this point. Windows 10 needs to come to mobile in a way that excites people, and then it will have a chance of success. I hope Microsoft can pull it off. We shall wait and see.