Microsoft and their mobile devices, Microsoft Lumia, were in the news again this week and not in a good way. The company has all-but confirmed that they will be killing off the devices and brand by the end of 2016. As a long time H/PC, PocketPC, Windows Mobile, and Windows Phone users (I started this site back in 2004 writing about Handheld PCs and PocketPCs), it is a shame to see a company with the resources of Microsoft so utterly screw up their mobile strategy around devices. There are a lot of reasons for this of course and I could spend a lot of digital ink on it. But the bottom line is, from a device perspective, Microsoft made a long series of major missteps that has led to where we are today: Virtually no Windows powered phones. Sure there is the new HP Elite X3 but at the price point it has ($799), it will see very few and really, it’s aimed at the enterprise anyway.
But to suggest that Microsoft’s mobile strategy is dead because their phones are dead is a bit of a stretch and dare I say, false. Their strategy is very much alive and well across both Android and iOS and proves that you don’t necessarily have to have phones in the mix. Microsoft’s focus has been pretty clear for the last two years. First, they want you using Microsoft services on whatever devices you want to use. Second, they want you to have the apps to make you productive and give you near the same level of functionality as you have on the desktop. These two things not only make up a mobile strategy but it makes a pretty solid one.
Microsoft Services & Solutions – On Your Phone Today (and your PC) (and your Mac)
When we think of Microsoft, we most often think of Office and Windows. These two products have made the company who they are today and literally billions of dollars in revenue. But Microsoft, like many software companies born on the premise (not the cloud), has had to make a fundamental shift in how it does business. This started with Office 365 where you could get office as a subscription (Software as a Service, or SaaS) and has slowly migrated throughout their software suite. Today you can get anything from cloud based storage and computing (Azure), Exchange (part of Office 365) and other services in a SaaS model where you pay monthly instead of big up front fees.
As all of this was going on, Microsoft was trying (desperately) to sort out their mobile strategy. At the time, it looked like Windows Phone was going to be the ticket and they went as far as to buy
Nokia in that effort. But it became quickly apparent that this was not going to work. For one, the integration of Nokia was painful and for two, there was no clear cut, this is what we are doing strategy. Reboot after reboot of the devices and the strategy lead to many of the most diehard users of Windows Phone to abandon the platform. Add to this, developers were reluctant to develop on the platform because they simply did not know what Microsoft was going to do.
I was one of those that left. Yes I still have a couple of Windows Phone devices in my office but my mobile world is run on Android.
In February 2014, Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft. Satya had been the Executive Vice President of Microsoft Cloud division and there was likely nobody better within the company to lead them through this shift from premise to cloud-centric software solutions. In March 2014, just 52 days into the job, he gave a press briefing in which he outlined a “mobile first, cloud first” strategy for Microsoft. It has been, for better or for worse, the driving mantra of the company since. That mobile first, for this discussion, is critical. It means that Microsoft wants their services and solutions (which includes apps) out there for everyone to use. If you use Microsoft Office, there is an app for you regardless if you are on an Android phone, a iPad or, yes, even a Microsoft Windows Phone. It means that services like Exchange can be easily accessed on these devices through native apps or Microsoft’s own Outlook app. It means you can even get access to your Xbox from your phone.
But Microsoft has gone a step further in their mobile strategy. They looked just beyond the core services they offer to other apps that can make their users productive or have a bit of fun. For both Android and iOS, there are a lot of examples. For both platforms you can get Groove, Microsoft’s music app and subscription service. This directly competes with both Google Play Music and Apple Music. You can also get OneDrive, a cloud storage option that competes with Google Drive and Apple’s iCloud. In fact, if you look in the iTunes Store, you will see no less than 82 different apps that Microsoft makes for iPhones and iPads. There are 87 apps from Microsoft in the Google Play Store. That, readers, is a mobile strategy. In fact, if you really wanted to do so, you could make your Android phone nearly 100% Microsoft.
I’ve put together a table below that shows the Google app for Android and the Microsoft equivalent app. Remember, I said nearly 100% so there are some gaps but you get the idea. If you are a die hard Microsoft fan, you can make Android your mobile device platform. Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list but it is aimed at giving you an idea of what is available to you.
|Google App||Microsoft Equivalent App|
|Google Now Launcher||Arrow Launcher|
|Google Docs, Sheets and Slides||Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and Word|
|Google Keep||Microsoft OneNote|
|Gmail and Google Calendar||Microsoft Outlook|
|Google Play Music||Microsoft Groove|
|Google Fit (requires compatible device)||Microsoft Health (requires compatible device)|
|Google Drive||Microsoft OneDrive|
|Google Maps||No equivalent|
|Google Photos||No equivalent|
|Google Search||Microsoft Bing|
|Google Newsstand||Microsoft MSN News|
Not a bad offering for a company that supposedly doesn’t have a mobile strategy because they don’t have a phone offering.
What is perhaps more interesting is the apps that Microsoft has developed that are only on mobile devices. It underscores the direction the company is taking: Use our apps, powered by our services in the cloud.
Feature Parity Across All The Devices
One of the biggest challenges developers at large companies face is parity across their suite of apps. Apple, Google and Microsoft all face this with their range of apps so nobody is immune. For Microsoft, the big tent pole in the parity tent was Office. Specifically, they had to get as much of a desktop experience in these apps as they could across all devices: Android, iOS, tablet form factors, phones and the desktop. This was no small task, especially when you consider the huge amount of horsepower that an app like Excel has on the desktop.
Those first few stabs at Office apps for Android and iOS were painful. They were very limited in what you could do but slowly and steadily the updates have come. With each update, more features are added to the mobile realm that was only on the desktop. Feature parity is much better than it ever has been for Microsoft. In some cases, they simply took the most commonly used features and added them into the mobile apps. Take Excel for example. There are still hundreds of formulas that are not in the mobile versions of the app. Why? Because a very small subset of the user population actually use those formulas. Rather, Microsoft has focused on getting the top two or three dozen formulas in the app to meet the need of 95+% of users.
Is there growth room? Absolutely. But they aren’t miles off like they were two years ago.
This feature parity ties in nicely with Microsoft’s mobile strategy. No longer are you confined to the desktop or even a Windows powered tablet to do what you need to do for work or play.
Will it Work?
The question, given the two dominant mobile Operating Systems are from Apple and Google, is if Microsoft can have a mobile strategy without a platform itself? To be fair to them, they will have a mobile OS. It is Windows 10. Windows 10 run on a multitude of devices including mobile devices. The issue is that Microsoft doesn’t have a strong mobile device strategy. Will that ultimately hurt them? I don’t think so and here is why.
If you are a heavy Microsoft user because of school, work or just personal choice, chances are you already have an iPhone or Android phone sitting next to you as you read this article. You’ve already made the jump to one of those devices – perhaps even years ago – and adapted them to meet your work and life needs. Now you have the option to use real Microsoft apps. Those apps give you the richness of the desktop for the most part along with some platform specific apps to make your life easier (a good example is the very powerful Arrow Launcher for Android that has excellent messaging and document integration). You can have that Microsoft centric productivity while still on an Android or iOS device.
In that sense, Microsoft does have a mobile strategy and a very solid one that will grow regardless of if they have phones in the offering.