Why Universal Apps Alone Will Not Save Windows Phone

This week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona we have already seen some interesting developments for Windows and Windows Phone.  First, we saw the announcement of the new Lumia 640 and Lumia 640XL, two mid-range devices that Microsoft will be launching globally, including here in the United States.  On the same day we saw Microsoft discuss in great detail Universal apps and the architecture underneath those apps for all things running Windows 10.  That latter point has garnered a lot of attention as it should.  Microsoft is general and Windows Phone in particular has been a fragmented mess that the company has essentially rebooted three times now.  They have to get it right with Windows 10 for Phones and universal apps will be a key part of that success.  I’ve said as much in the past and continue to believe that is the case.  I’ve encouraged developers to keep the faith as universal apps will make their lives and the lives of consumers easier in a Windows 10 world.

But universal apps in themselves will not save Windows Phone.  If anyone reading this believe that is the case, I’m sorry, but you are misguided.  They will play a big role, but they cannot be the only thing that changes if the platform on mobile is to survive.  It will take a level of marketing that Microsoft has never done with Windows Phone, a commitment – with consequences – from carriers, and partnerships that may seem unholy but are necessary.  The problems with Windows Phone go much deeper than Universal apps and lack of developers.  It’s a fundamental perception problem.

Microsoft’s marketing, to an extent, been successful.  I seem more Microsoft adverts here in the United States than I ever saw before I moved to the UK two years ago.  Now that I’m back, it is good to see these ads.  But the ads are dominated by Surface.  There is rarely a mention of Windows Phone if at all outside of the Lumia Connects site or the Microsoft YouTube channels.  And while Microsoft produces some ad-worthy videos, I never see them.  Ever.  Yet, on any given night on any given station, I see at least one advert for iPhone or Samsung Galaxy devices.

There is a reason the masses don’t use Windows Phone.  It’s because they rarely if ever hear about Windows Phone.  Unless they know someone who has a device or walk into a carrier retail store and happen to see one, the vast majority of people simply don’t know they exist let alone their features.  For those that do know they exist, the take one look at the specs, compare it to an iPhone, and decision is made.  I have beaten the drum continually as have many others of the need of a flagship Windows Phone.  The decision to delay that until Windows 10 is release is short sighted.  The market needs one now.  Today.  But even if they released such a phone today the chances of anyone knowing it are slim because outside of a vocal minority community, nobody is championing these devices.  This includes the marketing machine of Microsoft.

In order for Windows Phone in a Windows 10 world to be successful, there has to be a fundamental shift in the marketing approach of the platform to the public.  First, it has to start.  Second, it has to be done so in a way that captures the imagination of the audience by solving a problem for them.  Focus on the integration of Office.  Focus on OneDrive and cloud storage.  Focus on PureView cameras and the powerful Lumia Camera app.  All of these things have appeal.  Third, when universal apps arrive, tout them.  Push them.  Promote them within the Windows Phone adverts.  One of the best things that Apple does in their ads for iPhone, aside from the human factor, is touting apps on their platform.  Microsoft needs to focus on the exact same things.

That brings me to the carriers. I’m mainly picking on the US carriers on this point but I can see where this would be a problem everywhere.  Simply put, carriers have no incentive to sell Windows Phone nor the inclination and worse, Microsoft have no authority with the carriers.  I have used Apple as an example when I wrote on this topic last week in a post on how Microsoft could get around the carriers in a Windows 10 world when it comes to updates.  The amount of confusion around Lumia Denim is staggering and it fundamentally has to do with the lack of control Microsoft has over carrier relationships.  Apple has cracked this and did so day one with AT&T on the original iPhone.  They went to AT&T and dictated terms.  At the time Apple was much smaller company.  Yet Microsoft, enormous by comparison, capitulated to the carriers and let them control updates to their devices.  You can make the argument that it was due to Microsoft themselves not having devices but rather their partners.  Microsoft, however, is the developer of the platform and should be the one in control of updates.

Further, Microsoft needs to improve the incentives right down to the store level for selling Windows Phone. There are countless stories of Windows Phone enthusiasts walking into their local Verizon or AT&T store and asking for Windows Phone and being told to look at Android or iOS instead or, worse, the staff knew nothing of the devices.  Those incentives do not only need to be monetary but also need to be along the lines of training and even giving staff the opportunity to carry a Windows Phone as their personal devices.  In pockets this may be happening but it is not a blanket approach.  Finally, there has to be consequences for carriers when it comes to Windows Phone.  If a carrier opts to carry a device or set of devices, business plans and sales plans need to be in place to assure they get sold.  That is an all encompassing process (I know, it’s what I do in my day job) but unless Microsoft and the carriers define what success looks like from a sales and marketing perspective, Windows Phone will struggle.  As for consequences, if those business plans and sales plans are not met, discount points for purchases go away or are diminished.  It is a basic, widely accepted reseller/channel model.  Microsoft would not be tilling new soil by going down this path.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Microsoft is doing this already with carrier partners.  My retort is simple:  It’s not working.  Time to rethink it.

Finally, there is the need to continue to partner with other companies to meet the needs of Windows Phone users even if those relationship, right now, seem impossible or unholy.  I will take you back to the announcement of a Dropbox app a few months ago.  At the time, Microsoft was pushing hard OneDrive and giving away (literal) terabytes of storage to attract users.  It has worked as there are more people using OneDrive than ever before but Microsoft recognized that there were a lot of Dropbox users out there who needed to access those files from their Window Phones.  They struck a deal with Dropbox and now there is a thriving Windows Phone Dropbox app.  At the time, this was confusing but long term, it made a lot of sense for Microsoft to do this.

It is this type of partnering that needs to happen in other areas.  While Google clearly has no interest in working with Microsoft as I outlined in my post on their one-sided relationship, it will benefit Microsoft (and Google for that matter) to continue to push to forge a relationship.  More importantly it will benefit customers much as having Microsoft applications on Google devices has benefited those customers on Android.  Right now, this partnership seems impossible but I remind you that a partnership between Apple and Microsoft two decades ago seemed impossible.  It happened and look at the benefits it has brought to both companies.

I am and continue to be a supporter of Windows Phone.  I’ve used other platforms and have returned because it is the most personal, customizable user experience on a smartphone today.  That will only improve under Windows 10 for Phones and with the potential that Universal apps brings, I truly believe the best days for Windows Phone are ahead.  But to capitalize on this there has to be a change in marketing.  Microsoft needs – indeed must – get the brand out there much like they have done with Surface.  They have to take control of their own platform from carriers when it comes to updates and create incentivized programs to assure carriers not only stock the phones but actively sell them.  Then there has to be the continual push for partnering in the industry.  Consumers want the apps they want on whatever device they want and the only way to do that is through strong, corporate level partnership.

Universal apps, by themselves, will not move the market share needle for Windows Phone.