The Windows Phone platform commands no more than 4 percent of the world's smartphone market, and the opportunity for developers to attract that group of users has never been a great one.
On Wednesday, Microsoft began a new strategy for mitigating that problem, by characterizing future smartphones with Windows Phone 10 not as competitive devices against iOS and Android, but rather as a kind of far-flung peninsula of a vast, long-standing, and ever expanding platform.
The issue was brought to the forefront during Microsoft's Windows 10 preview event Wednesday by Current Analysis Research Director Avi Greengart, during a Q&A session that was not broadcast live.
Predicating his question by acknowledging Microsoft had hundreds of thousands of apps available for Windows Phone, Greengart told Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Executive Vice President Terry Myerson that their company was behind the times on functionality for those apps. They were either out of date, or not tailored or polished to the same extent as for Android and iOS apps. "How do you solve that going forward for Windows 10?" he asked.
Nadella began by rephrasing his question: "The thing that you talked about was, how do you create the broadest opportunity for developers, so that they target our platform? And that's core to what we saw today with Windows 10. The fact that on desktop, where we have a lot of [market] share today and a lot of usage -- you can find these applications, because we've basically integrated the discovery and usage of these apps -- means that developers can write universal applications, and get to more people across the entire Windows family, from the phone to the desktop. That's the opportunity that we are creating."
The CEO on Wednesday outlined a strategy that essentially counts all of Windows 10 as the base of users for Windows Phone 10, regardless of whether they have a Windows Phone. Meanwhile, in a meeting room elsewhere in the same building, officials were setting up demonstrations of the Windows Phone ecosystem that exclusively singled out Microsoft and Nokia brand devices, including existing ones. Some apps took exclusive advantage of the new Lumia 1520's 4K video capture capability to improve its camera functions, for example.
But another demo showed what was purported to be improvements to the company's Maps app for Windows 10. The biggest improvement, as one veteran Windows Phone owner attending the event pointed out, was the fact that there would be just one Maps app. In the past, there were multiple maps applications vying for attention against one another. This, ironically, amid the relative dearth of choice for high-quality apps in other functional categories.
The new app was capable of showing live traffic conditions, superimposing that data on top of highly refined visual maps produced by HERE, a service which Microsoft received perpetual rights to during the Nokia acquisition deal. But when told that competitors' mapping apps collected traffic conditions directly from their users' phones, the official politely responded that such social features and crowdsourcing were among the features Microsoft loves about its competitors' apps. But the company has no immediate plans to integrate similar features into its new Maps to catch up.
Officials and executives Wednesday also demonstrated early glimpses of the design methodology the company calls "Continuum." Here, an app can adapt its own appearance and functionality to suit the device it's running on. This way, a program originally conceived for the desktop can become its own mobile app without having to fork a separate version.
But a vast variety of mobile apps are not actually productivity suites shrunken down to size. While Office for Windows 10, formally announced Thursday, may be the best example of adherence to the Continuum principles to date, one key reason mobile devices have been embraced by billions of users is because they perform discrete functions that are suited to mobility. Another key reason is that users choose the apps they want to perform those functions, and competitive markets exist for the most common functions.
At least one analyst was impressed by the thoroughness of Microsoft's Continuum value proposition.
"I had some doubts, to be honest with you, about how seamless they could make the transition," said TECHnalysis chief analyst Bob O'Donnell. "Why would you really want one OS across all of these devices? The screens dictate things needing to be different. But they did, actually, a surprisingly good job at making the transition between devices smoother than I expected it to be. And they're tying their assets that work across all of these platforms -- Office, Skype, Cortana -- in a pretty compelling way."
"I think, at the end of the day," O'Donnell continued, "it's a pretty compelling story that says, these guys are back on the innovation side."
Certainly innovation was required to make a 4 percent market share in the most lucrative device category on the planet meaningful. The fact that it's being discussed speaks to a certain level of dexterity that BlackBerry has not been able to achieve in recent months, even with newly rediscovered successes. But developers, software producers and service providers may be skeptical about Windows 10 attempting to adhere to a different set of rules, where all Windows users are treated equally.