The new CEO of Microsoft’s new mantra for the direction of the software giant is “mobile-first and cloud-first”. At Pocketnow, we’re interested in the mobile-first stuff. To me, that would mean Microsoft intends to put a lot more effort into making their Windows Phone and Windows tablet operating systems and devices much better than anything else out there. I’d expect to see better hardware, a wider variety of hardware, better battery life, better games, more frequent new games, a better music experience, an awesome version of Microsoft’s Office productivity suite, and tighter integration between mobile devices and desktop/living room devices. It’s easy to say that you’re going to make mobile computing a priority, but in reality, what are we seeing in terms of Microsoft’s commitment to their mobile platform and mobile devices?
The people who make the best phones in the world
Last week, Microsoft announced the largest number of layoffs ever. 18,000 employees will be leaving the company within 6 months and the majority of them are part of Microsoft Mobile, which is the new name for what makes up a large portion of the acquisition from Nokia. In other words, a good percentage of ex-Nokians will lose their jobs.
Big mistake, right? Those Nokia folks were the ones that were putting so much passion and innovation into Windows Phone. Nokia’s software add-ons to Windows Phone were great. Some were pretty experimental, some just novelties, but all were innovative and exciting. Nokia’s hardware was the same way. They were really the ones pushing the limits of smartphone design in both high-end devices like the Lumia 1020 (whose camera is still king of the world) and low-end inexpensive-yet-great devices like the Lumia 520 (which can sometimes be found for $45 with no contract.)
Finland’s Minister of Finance even said that Microsoft betrayed the whole country. That might have been a little extreme though. We don’t really know exactly who was let go or what their jobs entailed, but presumably there was a lot of overlap in positions already at Microsoft and the layoffs are intended to give a more direct line between upper management and the engineers/developers doing the actual work. So that could be a good thing.
The McLaren Flagship
What was rumored to be Microsoft’s flagship device for release in the fall of this year has been reportedly cancelled. It was supposed to have an innovative 3D touch interface, sensors on the sides, and back, and probably Nokia’s next generation PureView camera. It was also supposed to come to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon for a good cross-carrier presence. Unfortunately, it looks like all hopes for a really high-end Windows Phone and Lumia 1020 successor this year may be lost, and that could really hurt.
Yes, the Nokia MixRadio service doesn’t integrate very well and overlaps with Microsoft’s Xbox Music service, so it seems like a good idea to spin off MixRadio as its own separate company or can it all together… but wait, have you used Xbox Music on Windows Phone? It’s horrible! MixRadio is fantastic. In fact, it could be the best mobile music service ever. Microsoft doesn’t seem to really care about a quality music service experiences anymore. They tried it with Zune and frankly, back in 2010, the Zune HD combined with the Zune 4.8 desktop software was by far the best music service at the time. That was some genuine innovation in usability, interface design, and music discoverability. Not until Nokia’s MixRadio came along had there been so much passion and innovation behind a music service. Actually, there are a few other new music services out there doing some pretty cool things in increasing the competition, but Xbox Music is kind of going in the opposite direction by releasing barely functional mobile apps. Maybe if the Xbox Music Pass was free with purchase of a Windows Phone it would be tolerable?
We all thought Microsoft would release a smaller Surface tablet earlier this year. Instead we saw a larger tablet in the Surface Pro 3. Sure, the Surface Pro 3 is an amazing workhorse of a tablet, but what happened to the mini? We hear that it was cancelled at the last minute because it’s not unique enough to be disruptive. That’s after all of the manufacturing equipment was bought, too. We’ve heard some other rumors that Microsoft might release the Surface Mini after a more touch-friendly “metro” version of Office is available. You know, something like the touch-friendly version of Office that was released for the Apple iPad a long time ago. Maybe Satya means “mobile first on Apple products”?
Speaking of Office Mobile, what’s up with the limited functionality? Sure, it’s nice to have a consistent Office Mobile application feature set on Windows Phone, iOS, and Android phones, but what happened to the features? Remember the version of Office that was available on Windows Mobile over a decade ago? It was far more capable! There was even a version of Microsoft Access that ran on Windows CE for Handheld PCs back around the turn of the century. Today, you can only choose one of 3 colors for your text in Word Mobile and you have zero font or heading style controls. Embarrassing.
Nokia X, Asha, & Series 40
Everyone knows Nokia has always been the best in terms of mobile phone hardware, and there has been a lot of demand for Nokia hardware running the open-source Android operating system. The Nokia X series of smartphones was an attempt at satisfying that demand, at least on the lower-end. Of course, nobody can really expect Microsoft to be promoting Android phones, but at least it gave all of the “Nokia hardware with Android” crying stop. The other two low end Nokia phone operating systems and devices; Asha & Series 40, are also being cancelled and dropped completely. These were very important in developing countries for their simplicity and battery life. Mobile phones that can last all week without a charge are still kind of useful in many scenarios. Have you ever seen a Windows Phone with a 36 day standby time like this Nokia 225? Maybe once Windows Phones get to that level of power efficiency and reliability it would be good to phase out the old operating systems, but Windows Phone 8.1 seems to be even less power efficient than its predecessors.
When was the last time you saw a new Xbox LIVE game on Windows Phone? It’s been a while. Halo: Spartan Assault was the last big one I can remember. Maybe there was a new Kinectimals game in there that was impossible to pay without making in-game purchases though. On the other hand, how many of the old Xbox LIVE Windows Phone games are no longer available in the Windows Phone store? Lots of Xbox LIVE Windows Phone games have been delisted or cancelled, and since there’s no offline backup, if you get a new phone or have to hard reset your current phone, you’ll have no way to restore those purchased games. What happened to the thing that made Xbox LIVE so good, too? Multiplayer games! Halo Spartan Assault actually has a cool multiplayer option on the Xbox 360/One version, but not on the mobile version. There are a handful of multiplayer games, but they’re asynchronous which isn’t quite as much fun, and usually they’re not cross-platform which is hugely important if you want to improve your cloud-first ecosystem.
Yes, it looks like Windows Phone will be updated more frequently. Windows Phone 8.1 is just starting to show up in the market, but we’re already hearing about the next GDR1 update that will bring even more features. The Developer Preview program that gives enthusiasts early access to the latest builds is pretty great too, but Windows Phone 8.1 has also lost a lot of features. In fact, both Windows Phone and Microsoft’s full Windows mobile tablet operating system tend to lose features pretty frequently. Windows Phone has lost hands-free integrated instant messaging via speech, and Windows 8 has lost the integrated Messaging hub as well. If you’re going to proclaim a “mobile-first” initiative, actions speak louder than words. So far this year, Microsoft’s actions regarding its mobile devices seem like the opposite of wanting to thrive in a mobile-first world. Is there a bigger plan that us consumers aren’t seeing?