Did Windows Phone, as a platform, only last 18 months?

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Almst six years ago to the day, Microsoft launched what would become its last* serious Windows phones, the Lumia 950 and 950 XL. The announcement certainly seems like a dividing line in the sand, six years on, but - curiously and perhaps even more significantly, at least with hindsight - occurred only 18 short months after its platform had matured, making the real world, viable lifetime of Windows on phones less than two years... total, I argue. Yes, yes, a crying shame. But here are the time and data points, to back up my contention.

* To be fair to the platform, the two Lumias weren't quite the last flagships, since HP had its enterprise Elite X3 and there was the oddball Alcatel or two. There was even the Wileyfox Pro, two years later at the tail end of 2017, but I'm not counting this because it was fairly low end and only produced to satisfy various contractual agreements.

So yes, Windows Phone itself was launched in 2010, somewhat stillborn in terms of functionality, but sporting what would become the dominant UI in the Windows wider ecosystem for much of the next ten years - Start screen, tiles, and so on. Windows Phone 8.0 arrived with Nokia's Lumia 920 in 2012, followed by the famous Lumia 1020 in 2013, but it wasn't until BUILD 2014 that Windows Phone 8.1 was announced, the maturation of the platform - and this then rolled out to most existing Lumias over the following months.

So that's a valid starting point at which point Windows Phone was feature complete and ready to take on the world. May 2014. And, potentially, under Microsoft's top to bottom control, since by then it had bought out Nokia's phone division, though that's another - parallel - story that has been covered before.

However, in the four years of gestation, the smartphone world had been taking big strides. Android was arguably feature complete and mature by 2012, iOS by 2011, and Windows (on phones) was very much 'the third ecosystem', as Nokia's Stephen Elop was so fond of declaring. 

The launch of Windows 10 Mobile was effectively in September 2014, a mere four months later, though it wasn't until January 2015 that it was formally named. All systems seemed go for the OS in parallel to Windows 10 on the Desktop at the time, though activiity and gossip seemed light on the ground. 

And so we then came to the launch of the Lumia 950 and 950 XL in September 2015. Looking back (video embedded below), Panos Panay did seem more enthusiastic than I remember. But back then, six years ago, the 950 series was right on the cutting edge of phone imaging, display technology (QHD and ClearBlack polarisers), connectivity (Continuum), and charging (Type C, Power Delivery, Qi) at the time. 

If there was a weak point in the Lumia 950 series, it wasn't the hardware (regardless of what you might think now in an age of metal and glass sealed slabs), it was in the software. Which is odd for Microsoft, primarily a software company. (And mirrored today in its Surface Duo line being marred over and over again by software glitches, by the way.)

The Lumia 950 and 950 XL took a good year of updates before their interfaces, applications and services really came to life (and before I finally switched my SIM from my Lumia 1020!) By which time Microsoft's new CEO, Satya Nadella, had decided to pull the plug on Windows 10 Mobile, or at least explore other options, in the Cloud and on other mobile platforms, so there was no longer any core enthusiasm for Microsoft to persist with its first party mobile OS.

This lack of enthusiasm within Microsoft for its 'own' mobile platform led to cancellation of future hardware (the Lumia 650 was the last, in January 2016, just three months after the Lumia 950 pair, and the 650's launch was unbelievably low profile - not even a blog post, famously).

And with Windows 10 Mobile now a 'thing', and with Windows being unified across the board (UWP apps, etc.), Windows Phone 8.1 was effectively dead in the water. In fact, significantly, it received no more updates, even to fix bugs, after the Lumia 950 launch. True, most of the higher end 8.1 phones were offered an OS update if the user was keen enough to install a special Upgrade Advisor application, but Windows 10 Mobile was never pushed over the air to the world - it was if 8.1 just... stopped.


So here's my somewhat shocking statistic, that the viable, competitive life of Windows Phone (in all varieties and names) was only about 18 months. From the roll out of Windows Phone 8.1 to the announcement of, first Windows 10 Mobile and then the Lumia 950/XL.

The problem was, of course, commitment, or rather lack of it. Having got Windows Phone 8.1 out the door, it needed a few years of push, development, support, and so on. More devices with higher specs, more APIs, more people using its (still) wonderful interface. Instead, Windows Phone 8.1 was kneecapped within months by the whole 'Windows 10 everywhere' phenomenon (which, to be fair, worked out pretty well on the Desktop) and then shot in the head by the arrival of the ultimately doomed Lumia 950 pair of 'flagships'.

In contrast, Apple and Google have poured countless billions of dollars into development and support of their mobile platforms. Year after year after year. iOS and Android deserve their successes. But it takes that kind of muscle and money to keep a mobile OS going out in the real world. Not a team of a few dozen part-timers at Microsoft.

Now, don't get me wrong, I loved the Lumia 950 and XL back in 2016/17, especially for their imaging, which I still wheel out in 2021 occasionally as a benchmark for smartphone cameras in this decade. But I think we all knew the writing was on the wall by mid-2016 and that everything was going to be an uphill battle thereafter.

18 months though. Symbian and Palm OS, the original smartphone mobile OS, each lasted well over five years at their peak. iOS is 14 years old and going strong, thanks to unbelievable investment and evolution. Android is arguably 13 years old and is a very messy OS in terms of forks, branches, manufacturers and ecosystem, but it's also still huge and Google are pumping out major improvements every year (Android 12 as I write this).

It's impossible to write this sort of editorial without a tinge of frustration and sadness. What might have been, eh? Although Nokia was partly to blame for focussing too much on low end Lumias in a world that wanted to be wowed by aspirational flagships, I ultimately blame Microsoft for changing their minds, architectures, ambitions, and plans too many times over a decade.

PS. Setting the scene nicely for Microsoft's latest high profile dalliance with mobile hardware, i.e. the Surface Duo 2. I'll have it in hand in a day or so, watch for full review coverage.