It’s easy to forget that Microsoft has been powering mobile phones for almost twice as long as Apple or Google. Alongside Nokia’s Symbian, and later Blackberry, they pioneered the touch-screen, internet-enabled smartphone. Microsoft launched a highly-capable touch-screen tablet PC almost a decade ahead of the iPad.
But fast forward to 2014, and Microsoft have lost their first mover advantage. They’ve come to be dominated by others in the mobile device sector: firstly by Apple’s iOS, and then by Google’s Android. To say they’ve been slow to catch-up with the competition would be being kind.
There’s been some progress over the past few years. The biggest step was to move completely away from the old Windows Mobile OS that had been a market leader in the pre-iPhone era. The replacement came in the form of Windows Phone 7 which while touch-friendly, was challenging for developers to create apps for. Windows Phone 8 was more flexible, and coupled with some quality hardware from Nokia has helped Microsoft to gradually creep back up the market share tables. In certain markets, e.g. Italy, Windows Phone has significant traction and double digit share.
This week at Microsoft’s annual Build Developer Conference, Microsoft unveiled Windows 8.1 , and with it a raft of improvements to help close the gap with Android and iPhone. We have a developer there in San Francisco and will be reporting back here on our blog shortly with their view on the new version and what this means to CoPilot.
However arguably the most significant announcement was that Windows Phone 8 will be available free to manufacturers of smartphones and small tablets (ie – devices with 9″ or smaller screens). It’s a dramatic change of strategy from a company that is inherently proud of their Windows creation and has traditionally commanded a premium for it.
Free Windows is potentially a game changer, removing a significant barrier to adoption from device manufacturers and giving them a clear alternative platform to Android. Will it enable Microsoft to return to dominance? Time will tell, however price alone is unlikely to be enough. The user experience enhancements in Windows Phone 8.1, coupled with the consumer appeal of handsets that run it will ultimately determine whether Windows Phone can apply genuine pressure on Google and Apple.
One thing is for sure, Microsoft is taking a long term view of the mobile game and the wealth of announcements this week underscore their serious determination to recover the market leadership position that they previously enjoyed.