It's last call for Windows Phone

Major cuts in its mobile hardware business and a lackluster Windows 10 mobile beta make you wonder if Microsoft cares any more

The fat lady has not yet sung for Windows Phone, but she's in the wings waiting to go on stage.

Yesterday, Microsoft did what CEO Satya Nadella has been telegraphing for months: It shut down most of the mobile hardware business it bought from Nokia a year ago in then-CEO Steve Ballmer's final poor decision. The downsizing move has moved many people to wonder if Microsoft will soon exit the smartphone business.

Maybe, but I don't think that decision is imminent.

Yes, it's true that Microsoft has sent several signals that it doesn't care much about its mobile business. For example, though Windows 10 is set to begin shipping on July 29, the Windows Phone beta remains full of bugs and flaws -- as if the real Windows 10 for Windows Phone won't be ready until year's end. (A new beta appears to be imminent. We'll see if it functions better.)

But Microsoft keeps talking about its universal apps strategy, integrated Microsoft app store, and common Windows platform for all client devices. Those activities make sense only if Microsoft sees Windows Phone (awkwardly renamed Windows 10 for Phones) as a key part of its platform future.

Microsoft bought Nokia's smartphone business so that it could deliver Windows Phones, since poor sales had driven out the usual smartphone makers. Maybe Ballmer decided it needed to own the hardware as Apple does for the iPhone. Or maybe this was never more than a strategy to keep Windows Phones in the market until a viable version became available (theoretically, Windows 10) that device makers like LG and Acer would then adopt.

The real issue is that Microsoft's stated strategy is clear, but its commitment and execution are not.

It's running out of time to deliver on its promises. I figure it has a year or less to make Windows Phone viable to maintain any carrier or user interest. Today, Windows Phone is where BlackBerry was in 2012 when it promised BlackBerry OS 10 would reverse its decline. The opposite happened, and now BlackBerry is an afterthought everywhere.

The industry has been quite tolerant of Microsoft when it comes to mobile, but Microsoft has abused that patience. When Microsoft replaced Windows Mobile in 2010 with Windows Phone, the industry was shocked that it had jettisoned all the security features of Windows Mobile, instantly making Windows Phone persona non grata in enterprises, and giving the iPhone the edge it needed to become the corporate smartphone standard.

It took three versions of Windows Phone to put basic security and management in place, and the platform still badly trails iOS and Android in support of business needs. The dearth of apps continues to be an issue, leading Microsoft to desperate moves like trying to facilitate ports of apps from iOS and Android, a strategy that has failed for, BlackBerry, and others.

By moving to a common Windows 10 core, Windows Phone is supposed to get not only access to the bigger Windows applications universe but also to key security and management features in the desktop Windows platform. That would give Windows Phone a viable baseline to move forward.

But it still must move forward and offer compelling capabilities that would tempt Android and iOS users to abandon their rich, self-reinforcing ecosystems for Microsoft's. There've been zero clues as to how Windows Phone might become so compelling.

That's another lesson for Microsoft from BlackBerry's journey to oblivion: When it finally became available, BlackBerry 10 was good. But it existed in a vacuum, with minor developer support and no ecosystem to draw people back, much less bring new users into the fold. That's where Window Phone is today.

BlackBerry tried all sort of notions to lure users back, from support for Amazon's Fire OS Android fork to broadening BlackBerry Messenger's reach. None worked.

It's not even clear that Microsoft has any notions to try for Windows Phone after shoring up its core. If not, it should admit defeat and move on, focusing instead on a Google-like strategy of having Office, Exchange, and so on be the standard apps on all devices, not only Windows units.

If Microsoft has any notions for growing Windows Phone, time is running out fast for the company to turn around its mobile platform. Get moving already!

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.