Microsoft’s Windows Phone team appears to have no products, strategy, grip, or clue. They need to cut bait, and the HP Elite x3 is a fitting valedictory to a failed strategy.
It’s not that we don’t need Windows Phone; it’s that Microsoft has mismanaged it so badly. It’s possible to have three mainstream OSes on mature platforms. Look at laptops—where we have MacBooks, Zenbooks, and Chromebooks—or tablets, where we have Surfaces, iPads, and Fires.
Microsoft’s problem with phones, as we’ve recounted many times before, has really been about its lurching, swerving strategy, inconsistent third-party support, and distribution chaos. The company has flushed its mobile team several times in the past five years, took far too long to integrate with other Microsoft products, and sold its phones through a series of carrier exclusivity agreements that frequently saw them exiled to the backs of stores after a few weeks of heavy promotion.
This argument is different from the “there’s only room for two” argument. Google is not impregnable. If Google annoys Samsung enough with its new Pixel phone strategy, watch Samsung turn to its homegrown Tizen OS. Samsung used to be a Windows Phone partner, of course. But after being burned on developing non-selling Windows Phones before, I can’t see Samsung turning to Windows Phone again.
Into this void drops the HP Elite x3, a long-awaited high-end Windows Phone from a company that hasn’t released a phone in the US since the webOS-powered Veer 4G in 2011. The Elite x3 makes a fitting final phone for Windows Phone because it’s powerful, ambitious, and has had a tortured route to market that likely will have killed most of its appeal by launch.
We first saw the Elite x3 in February, when it looked like the apotheosis of Microsoft’s Continuum strategy, which lets you use a phone with a cradle to become a sort of thin-client PC. It’s a smart idea, one that mobile manufacturers have been trying and failing at for years (see 2011’s Motorola Atrix) and could have been something had Microsoft had any follow-through at all.
I suspect I’m going to get to review the Elite x3 soon, and I suspect it’s going to be really nice. It’ll fit a niche in closed ecosystems like large enterprises with all-HP, all-Windows, IT-managed worlds. I’m curious to see what sort of line-of-business contexts will be developed for it. That’s going to be about the limit of its market appeal. It may not have a successor.
Microsoft Doesn’t Believe in Itself
Microsoft’s utter confusion on mobile is borne out by the complete lack of interest and engagement I’ve seen from Microsoft’s mobile team recently, which is a pity. I used to talk to Microsoft all the time, but not any more. At the weird Lumia 950 launch in late 2015, Microsoft devices chief Panos Panay showed little enthusiasm for his own team’s product. The Lumia 950 finally arrived buggy with under-featured apps.
It’s not just me, either. Yesterday Lenovo’s COO Gianfranco Lanci, formerly of Acer, said he is “not convinced Microsoft is supporting the phone for the future.” Lanci knows what he’s talking about. Lenovo is one of Microsoft’s leading Windows 10 partners, and while at Acer, Lanci went all in with the original Windows Phone 7 launch.
I take this particularly hard because I was a Windows Phone believer. I loved the elegant HTC 8X phone, and Microsoft’s Live Tiles strategy was usable, easy, smart, powerful, and different. I ended up having to leave the platform because of the company’s failure to attract the popular third-party apps I needed in my daily life.
Windows Phone fans still hold out the Panay-stoked hope of a much-rumored Surface Phone, which will presumably turn the company around. But Mary Jo Foley, the best-connected Microsoft reporter in the world, said that may now be delayed until 2018, which means “possibly never.”
It’s time to turn the page. Windows Phone was a good dream. Often, it was a good product. But Microsoft has shown that for whatever reason, they just can’t do it.