Microsoft kills support for 75% of Windows Phone users

Microsoft has ended support for Windows Phone 8.1, the operating system that powers around 75% of Windows smartphones in the wild today. The curtain is being drawn on a disastrous attempt to expand Windows from its PC roots, using the $7.2bn acquisition of Nokia’s handset division as a springboard – which ultimately led to Microsoft writing off over $8bn of that investment.

Nokia is now back in the handset market, at least indirectly, but Microsoft has now given up entirely on the platform side of things, both in terms of devices and the OS that powers them. Instead, its mobile strategy is now centered around its Office applications, and Skype – although recent updates have received a lot of strong community backlash.

Broadly put, Microsoft has consciously moved away from devices, opting to pursue routes to market through third party hardware platforms, to drive sales of its software and applications (as it did so successfully in PCs). On the cloud side of things, Microsoft is pushing Azure as the answer to any application hosting problem – and is ensuring that its core Windows OS supports as many platforms as possible, even though the mobile phone is definitely not a priority.

However, Windows 10 Mobile is carrying on, for now at least. The OS has had little success outside of the newer Lumia models, with the HP Elite X3 being the only non-Microsoft/Nokia device we can find that uses Windows 10. That phone isn’t cheap, and its main selling point appears to be its ability to slot into a keyboard and mouse hub to replicate a desktop experience – confining it to one hell of a business-user niche.

With less than 1% US market share, Windows Phone has been dead for a long time. It hasn’t had a major feature update in around two years, and Microsoft has been pushing for 8.1 users to migrate to 10 – although hardware restrictions have hampered that migration.

While dropping support for older version of an OS is commonplace, the notable change here is that Microsoft is both OS developer and OEM – there simply isn’t an ecosystem of vendors that will drive Windows 10 to new heights in the phone market. Those users stuck on 8.1 are unlikely to purchase a Windows Phone when they are forced to upgrade – and even if they wanted to, it is very rare to find one in a bricks-and-mortar store. Those users, 75% of the total Windows mobile footprint, are definitely not sure bets to continue using the platform – Microsoft is choosing to lose them.

So it is clear that Microsoft is content to let the Windows mobile experience wither on the vine, despite years of investment (from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone to Windows 10), and some genuine innovation in the more recent years around the user experience. But it doesn’t seem to be pursuing any paths that would create a resurgence for the OS. It isn’t courting handset vendors; it can’t be considering buying its way into the market (again); and the entrenched Android-iOS duopoly looks stronger than ever. It won’t be producing any more of the Lumia phones either – this looks like the end.

Rumors of a Surface Phone have persisted, but have so far come to naught. Microsoft evolved its hybrid tablet into a fully-fledged laptop with the Surface Book, and there’s the Surface Studio desktop variant, with its high quality display – pitched at designers, and notably treading on Apple’s toes.

This week, Microsoft confirmed that it is closing its Surface Hub manufacturing plant in the UK, where it had been assembling its $22,000 84-inch 4K tablets. It may well reassign the task to China. Microsoft has also killed of its wearables project, and seems to have aligned its augmented reality HoloLens project squarely with enterprise applications – not intending for it to be a consumer-facing product.

Windows 10, as an evolution of Windows 8, is Microsoft’s attempt at creating a cross-platform (mobile, laptop, desktop, tablet, server, IoT) platform for its applications and services (Office 365, business applications, Azure Cloud). A lot of work has gone into converting the OS to run on ARM processors (rather upsetting Intel in the process), and Qualcomm has been an advocate of the platform – with its Snapdragon 835 SoC due to appear in laptops from Asus, HP and Lenovo.

Intel may well throw a spanner in those works, if its veiled threats about suing over x86 emulation patents come to the fore, but it seems clear that ARM-based laptops are going to emerge despite Intel’s desire. It is expected that Apple will transition to ARM in its laptops at some point, with the convergence of its x86 and mobile operating systems being the deciding factor – as once they reach feature parity and full interoperability, unifying the underlying silicon is the next logical increment.