Why Microsoft keeps Windows 10 Mobile alive

Only 13 smartphone models can run the Creators Edition update, but there's more to mobile than smartphones

Why Microsoft keeps Windows 10 Mobile alive
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Windows 10 Creators Update is now out for Windows Mobile smartphones. That may seem like a continued vote of support by Microsoft for its failed mobile platform, until you realize that only a baker’s dozen of Windows Mobile devices can install the upgrade, down significantly from the previous Windows 10 update. 

Why bother updating Windows Mobile? Microsoft said more than a year ago it was putting the platform in deep freeze, after killing its own Lumia devices. And Microsoft has turned its mobile attentions to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, increasingly (though haltingly) bringing its core apps to those successful rivals.

Windows 10 Mobile is not bad, though it clearly lags the capabilities, ecosystem, and ease of use of iOS and Android. But the Anniversary Edition and Creators Edition releases for Windows 10 Mobile in the last year haven’t moved the platform forward in compelling ways. Often, the changes weren’t even noticeable to users.

The biggest new capability was adding smartphone-on-desktop support in Anniversary Update, but the lack of legacy Windows app compatibility and the lack of capable native Windows 10 Mobile apps from even Microsoft rendered that feature useless. HP’s Elite x3 Windows Mobile smartphone’s dock experience showcased that problem, whereas Samsung’s Dex showed how to do it right (on Android).

So why does Microsoft bother?

My theory is that Windows 10 Mobile is a placeholder to keep Microsoft’s toe in the water while it figures out a new mobile strategy. After all, Microsoft’s original Windows Mobile actually mattered as the No. 2 mobile platform in the early 2000s (competing with Palm OS against the then-leader, BlackBerry).

Everyone knows that Microsoft destroyed its mobile standing with 2011’s pathetic Windows Phone replacement. Microsoft tinkered with that fatally flawed operating system for several years, but perhaps distracted by its Windows 8 disaster, Microsoft essentially let Windows Phone fade away. The revitalized Windows 10 Mobile in 2015 remained too little, too late.

But Microsoft has done better in the other part of mobile: tablets. Its Surface Pros have become well-regarded tabtops—not really tablets in the iPad or Android sense, but also not quite merely laptops with detachable keyboards. Yes, Windows 10’s tablet mode is not very good, but Windows 10 is adequate on a tablet with no attached keyboard—and it’s what most users want when there is a keyboard. 

If you put aside notions of tablet purity, Microsoft has established more than a foothold in the tablet segments of mobile computing. Assuming the 26 percent drop in Surface revenues versus a year earlier is a blip, not a trend, expect to see Microsoft continue to evolve its tablet notion.

I suspect—though with no proof—that Microsoft is keeping Windows Mobile alive for two reasons:

1. To keep internal expertise on pure mobile experience to apply that expertise to the hybrid tabtop devices like the Surface that have gained user traction.

My conversations with CIOs at a range of companies and industries suggest that most users aren’t interested in iPad-style tablets for work, opting instead for a combination of modern, increasingly mobile-savvy laptops like the Surface Pro and smartphones like the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S series. Microsoft’s efforts to bring the real Windows experience to tablets and PCs running the low-power ARM chips tell me it intends to deepen its tabtop strategy.

2. To keep the option alive of being the No. 2 smartphone platform in enterprise, where the strong affinity for Microsoft products gives it a big edge should it reenter the smartphone market with a compelling product.

Displacing iPhones will be very difficult, but taking on Android in business is much more plausible, given that only one Android manufacturer, Samsung, has any serious enterprise focus. Android is still rightfully considered a security risk that IT would prefer to avoid, due mainly to its susceptibility to malware.

The notion Gartner and IDC promoted in 2011 that Microsoft’s Windows Phone would be the No. 2 mobile platform in 2015 was laughable then and clearly false now. Internally, Microsoft saw the reality and essentially decided to lay low for a while. It moved first to make its Surface tablets solid products imbued with mobility-friendly tweaks, and that has paid off.

Now, I suspect it is plotting its next step to find a role for a Windows smartphone in the new world order. Cementing its No. 1 position for laptops by also owning tabtops and gaining the No. 2 position in enterprises for Windows smartphones, while owning the core business apps on all devices (via Office 365), is the new world order I believe Microsoft is seeking.

Stay tuned.