Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella appeared at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce 2015 this week and spoke about the firms’ growing partnership. But like most Windows phone fans, what I was most interested to hear was Mr. Nadella’s words about my favorite mobile platform.
Most of Nadella’s time at Dreamforce was of course spent discussing higher-level issues such as productivity and of course more popular Microsoft products, such as Microsoft Office. Here, let’s just look at phone.
And it started off humorously enough. Laughing, Mr. Nadella said showed an iPhone with a home screen consisting almost solely of Microsoft apps. He described this configuration as an “iPhone Pro,” a cute nod to the recently-announced Apple iPad Pro, which is of course a Surface knock-off.
“It’s … it’s not my phone,” he said to audience chuckles, “but it … is an iPhone. But it is a pretty unique iPhone. I like to call it the iPhone Pro because it’s got all the Microsoft software and applications on it. It’s got Skype, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, even all the new stuff, OneNote, Sway … it’s pretty amazing.”
From there, Nadella launched into a demo, first of Outlook, which is the former Accompli app that Microsoft purchased several months ago and has been steadily improving. “It’s the best email client on iOS for Gmail and Exchange,” he claimed. (I’m a bit dubious of the Gmail part of that, given that there is an excellent native Gmail client on iPhone, but whatever.)
If you’re not familiar with the Microsoft experience on iPhone, please read my article Microsoft + iPhone, from back in April. Since then, the Microsoft app experience on Apple’s mobile platform has only improved, but my original point is as true as ever: “iPhone is arguably the best mobile platform for Microsoft apps.”
OK. We get the whole “mobile first, cloud first” thing. Clearly Nadella and Microsoft feel the need to continually remind the world that they’re not just on iOS (and Android) but are there in a major way. And that’s fine. But what about Windows phones?
As you might expect, Nadella chose to focus on the one major and obvious differentiator that is coming in Windows 10 Mobile: the Continuum technology that will enable some higher-end Windows phones to become pseudo-PCs when docked and connected to a keyboard, mouse and external display.
“We have this one capability that is pretty unique,” he said, which is actually sadly telling, because Continuum may in fact be the one unique capability separating Windows 10 Mobile from Android and iOS. “Because of the software, you don’t have to be bound to just the form and function of one hardware device. So I can actually just take my Windows phone, tether it to a Bluetooth mouse, keyboard, and a Bluetooth screen, and literally you have a PC-like experience.”
I assume most people reading this site are familiar with Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile by now, since Microsoft loves to pull this demo out as often as possible. I was able to use this feature myself back in July, and it works as advertised: Apps you launch on the phone’s display launch there, but on the external screen, you see a unique Start menu that duplicates the phone’s Start screen, and apps that you run from there run on the external display.
I’m a little nervous that Windows phone fans looking for any good news at all will latch onto Continuum as the latest in a long series of changes that will supposedly save Windows phone (and then not do so). As I noted back in July in This is How Microsoft Can Find Its Smart Phone Niche, Continuum is important, but it’s a niche use case and is really just a holding pattern until Microsoft can find a mobile strategy that actually works.
But Nadella doesn’t see it that way, apparently. He spoke of emerging markets, place where people will only own a phone and this functionality could enable them to be more productive, presumably in public computing spaces. (He oversold things a bit by claiming that this system provides “full Word, Excel,” which is of course not the case: Full Office functionality is only available on desktop-based PCs systems.
But his central message can be rectified with how I see Continuum. And that is, given that Windows phone has failed, which it has, Microsoft has changed strategies. And part of that strategy is of course to change the definition of what a phone is. In other words, if you can’t beat them, change the game. No matter how well it works, this is a good move.
For Windows phone fans, the future is uncertain. I don’t feel that this platform will ever rise out of low single digit market/usage share anymore, but it’s clear that Microsoft will keep the Windows phone platform afloat regardless for the foreseeable future, and will make its own Windows phone hardware for at least the next year. After that, who knows?
As for this week’s Nadella appearance, I like that he segued from an iPhone with Microsoft apps to a differentiated (if still vaporware) Windows phone experience, showing how the later was/could be superior.