Thinking About Microsoft’s “Most Ultimate Mobile Device”

Posted on November 23, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Windows Phones with 37 Comments

Thinking About Microsoft's "Most Ultimate Mobile Device"

Windows enthusiasts have found a lot to cheer in a recent interview with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Not the least of which is a brief discussion of what he calls “the most ultimate mobile device.”

This interview is the same source for Mr. Nadella’s toasting of Apple CEO Tim Cook, which I wrote about yesterday. Today, let’s look at what is already an over-analyzed couple of sentences about Microsoft’s much-criticized phone strategy.

As you may recall, Microsoft announced its surrender of the smartphone market in mid-2015, when it wrote off $7.6 billion related to its Windows Phone assets and revealed that it would dramatically scale back its mobile operations. It then announced in March 2016 that it would further streamline its Windows phone hardware business by focusing only on business customers going forward. As part of that announcement, Microsoft said it would layoff more employees in its mobile business and record a charge against earnings.

But this week, Nadella seemed to indicate that he had some secret plan to reignite Microsoft’s smartphone business, at least according to some. And while enthusiasts are cheering these comments, it’s important to put them in perspective. That is, those comments—which I’ll get to in a moment—are not really all that different from what Mr. Nadella said in March. Which is this:

“We are focusing our phone efforts where we have differentiation, with enterprises that value security, manageability, and our Continuum capability,” Nadella said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to innovate across devices and on our cloud services across all mobile platforms.”

With that in mind, let’s look at what Mr. Nadella said this week.

When asked specifically about Surface phone, Nadella said that Microsoft “was not going to launch into a device category without bringing something different to the table, and was more interested in how individuals and organizations were using devices, than the devices themselves.”

Those are the words of the interviewer, the Financial Review’s Paul Smith, and not Mr. Nadella. But they echo what Nadella has been saying for some time: Microsoft cannot compete with Android and iPhone in the consumer smartphone space. And Microsoft is more interested in “mobility of experiences” than it is in having its own mobile platform. That is, it will continue to serve customers where they are, which in mobile is on Android and iOS.

That said, these comments also suggest that Microsoft would in fact “launch into a device category” as long it would be “bringing something different to the table.” And that is exactly what a Continuum-based Windows phone handset is today. It is also exactly what Nadella said back in March (as noted above). So this is no new information. There is nothing to see here.

But it continues.

“We don’t want to be driven by just envy of what others have, the question is, what can we bring?” he told Mr. Smith. “That’s where I look at any device form factor or any technology, even AI.”

That isn’t technically new either, as AI was a huge focus of September’s Microsoft Ignite conference. But it is a new bit of nuance to the phone conversation, and suggests that Microsoft feels it can contribute to the mobile market from an AI perspective. Today, this encompasses both back-end services, a Microsoft strength, as well as user-facing interfaces like Cortana and bots, which is currently more mixed from a success standpoint.

Referring to Microsoft’s role in HP’s Windows phone-based Elite x3, Mr. Nadella said that his firm provided “structural innovation,” which is to say Windows 10 Mobile generally, plus Continuum and the various supporting Microsoft services. And that Microsoft’s focus on mobile was “on productivity, management and security.” In other words, Microsoft is happy not to be at the center of the mobile platform, and will cede that spotlight to third parties, like HP. Remember, the Elite x3 focuses on the exact market that Nadella previously specified: “Enterprises that value security, manageability, and our Continuum capability.”

And then there is the quote that has everyone in a tizzy.

“We will continue to be in the phone market not as defined by today’s market leaders, but by what it is that we can uniquely do in what is the most ultimate mobile device,” he said.  (Emphasis mine.) “Therefore [with Nokia assets], we stopped doing things that were me-too and started doing things, even if they are today very sub-scale, to be very focused on a specific set of customers who need a specific set of capabilities that are differentiated and that we can do a good job of.”

My explanation of these comments is that nothing has changed, sorry.

That is, Microsoft sees “the most ultimate mobile device” as one in which Microsoft’s software and services innovations are present, and not in a Microsoft-branded device. That can be a device that runs on Microsoft’s mobile platform—a rarity—or it can be on a different platform.

And for its own mobile platform, Microsoft continues to focus only on “a specific set of customers who need a specific set of capabilities that are differentiated and that we can do a good job of.” Which is just another way of saying “enterprises that value security, manageability, and our Continuum capability.”

Granted, his words are open to interpretation, and there is no reason to suggest things can’t change, and improve. And I understand why these words would excite someone who is still looking forward to a Surface phone.

But if could add a bit more common sense to this discussion, it’s important to remember that even an x86-based Surface phone, or an ARM-based Surface phone that could run desktop applications as hinted at by this week’s rumors, doesn’t really solve the problem for Microsoft or for Windows phone fans.

That is, today’s Continuum solution is lackluster on two levels: You have a Windows phone that has no apps, and then connect it to a display, keyboard, and mouse, and create a pseudo-PC that, likewise, has no apps.

Adding x86 capabilities to the phone would solve half the problem: When docked, you could access the rich ecosystem of Windows desktop applications, a big plus. But when used as a phone, that device would still have no apps.

And that, alas, is a problem for which I see no solution.


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  1. 4 | Reply
    BigM72 Alpha Member #95 - 1 month ago

    There is a solution they could bring back: Astoria

    1. 0 | Reply
      dvdwnd Alpha Member #1403 - 1 month ago
      In reply to BigM72:

      Yup, while it may sting to some people, Astoria is desperately needed on both PC and Mobile. Throw in Xbox too. Sure, it might mean that native UWP apps will be few and far between, but it's basically what we've got today anyway. It's most evident on Mobile, but that's only the beginning.

    2. -1 | Reply
      madthinus Alpha Member #94 - 1 month ago
      In reply to BigM72:

      To me they killed the goose that could have laid the ecosystem egg, in the hope that people will jump on UWP. Clearly that has not worked out, desktop or otherwise.

  2. 3 | Reply
    gregsedwards Alpha Member #1910 - 1 month ago

    <docbrown> Paul, you're not thinking fourth dimensionally! </docbrown>

    I think the idea is that while there's currently no Windows 10 Mobile ecosystem, the addition of x86 support in some form or fashion might create a unique value proposition that would cause users to reconsider the platform as a whole. You get users carrying W10M devices in sufficient numbers, and maybe app developers start looking at porting their mobile apps. And then guess what? Project Centennial makes that pretty easy.

    BTW, I really like the idea you pitched on WTT yesterday about a base with an x86 chip in it. That makes a ton of sense to me. The power to run real Windows when you're docked, but the power consumption of mobile when you're on the go.

    Will it make any difference? Yeah, probably not. But what the hell, we can dream, right? Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. 0 | Reply
      hribek25 Alpha Member #2562 - 1 month ago
      In reply to gregsedwards:

      Hello, just a quick comment. You still need a Win32api in order to run a project centennial stuff. It is just a "wrapper" around standard desktop app and so it does not mean those apps can run on ARM-based chipsets (mobile phones). 



  3. 1 | Reply
    RM2016 Alpha Member #2048 - 1 month ago

    After spending time with other's iPhones, iOS feels like its in the stone age. Flat icons with no messaging. I like looking at my start screen to see what I need to see. While it is missing some apps I have never felt that I am missing anything with windows 10 on mobile. I find iOS unbearable after the richness of WX. So I'll likely keep plugging away on my L930 until the Alcatel 4S is unlocked of until the Qualcom 835 is incorporated late next year.



    1. 0 | Reply
      maethorechannen Alpha Member #377 - 1 month ago
      In reply to RM2016:

      Why should the icons have messaging? There are perfectly good notifications in the notification area, and while I have no idea how it works on iOS, the cards on the Google Now launcher beats live tiles hands down (being able to dismiss ones you're not interested in is just the start, unlike Live Tiles where the picture of some tragically deceased child can sit in the news icon for days).

      If there was one thing I could change on my 950, it would be replacing live tiles with Cortana cards.

  4. 0 | Reply
    MutualCore - 1 month ago

    Surface Phone could be the best device ever and no one will buy it because it doesn't have the apps. Seriously, why would any consumer consider a smartphone in 2017 that doesn't have the official Youtube app?

    1. 1 | Reply
      JCerna Alpha Member #527 - 1 month ago
      In reply to MutualCore: Well since I dont use youtube rather than just in ocation that does not matter to me. Same with snapchat or some of the other consumer apps. Most of my day I am on buisnness apps and the web and edge is good enough for most cases. To me the only reason to have and carry an android phone is for the ocational day I need the one app that I would only use for that one moment (MTS, Resturant, Store, Etc). To me I dont get in the day of HTML5 the ease to make a webapp with the same code as iOS, Andrioid, and Win 10 Universal why they make it so hard on customers. Why would I need to install an app just to be able to buy and use the Metro with my phone. Why not make a web app that uses QRCodes. In some cases some of these apps requier for you to go online to create an account and then they send you to download the app. It jst does not make sense. I know that the APIs of local devie apps are better but why not allow customers to have a choice. Fine dont, write a WIndows 10 app but at least let me use your web app on my Windows Phone or that older phone that I can't upgrade to get your app.


  5. 0 | Reply
    edboyhan Alpha Member #492 - 1 month ago

    Yesterday, there was a Bloomberg article about a rumored Amazon Echo device that would incorporate a screen.  I thought this might be the culmination of a Lab126 project (code named Knight I think) that would bring a Kindle/Fire device focused on the kitchen to market.  The Bloomberg article did say that the Echo with screen would let one stick things on the screen not unlike one pastes photos on your fridge door.

    Now, I happen to have a Surface Pro 1 in my kitchen (it's one of my two insider fast ring devices).  So I'm thinking could the Amazon Echo with screen be something in the form factor of the Surface Pro 1 sans keyboard? (I could certainly see that in my kitchen).  Then I thought to myself why doesn't Microsoft bring to market an Echo-like device to compete with the Echo and Google's Home device?

    (I currently have a two year old Echo, a gen 1 Dot, a gen2 Dot, and a Tap -- so I guess I really have a thing for Alexa :grin).

    Then I asked myself what if that Microsoft Echo like device (with screen :grin) also contained a phone (or for that matter what if the putative Amazon device contained a phone)?  In that kind of a form factor heat would not be a problem, and the Echo devices (save the Tap) are not battery powered.  So an X86 device which contains a phone is a distinct possibility.

    So instead of "Alexa call my sister" it could be "Cortana call my sister" and I could walk around the kitchen making dinner while I talk to her mediated through an Echo (or Microsoft mobile) device.  In the business world just think of all those 50's movies in which some CEO (or other senior exec) pushes a button on his intercom and says "Joanne could you step in for a minute".  Now the exec could walk around his office while having a phone conversation with a subordinate (:grin), or why not have Alexa/Cortana take some dictation?  I think an Echo-like device in a business setting has a lot of possibilities.

    Could this be what Satya's rangers have up their sleeve?

  6. 0 | Reply
    MutualCore - 1 month ago

    But they echo what Nadella has been saying for some time: Microsoft cannot compete with Android and iPhone in the consumer smartphone space.


    So what's the point?

    1. 0 | Reply
      matsan Alpha Member #906 - 1 month ago
      In reply to MutualCore:

      Throw more good money after bad?

    2. 0 | Reply
      MutualCore - 1 month ago
      In reply to matsan:

      I'm not trying to be a negative ninnie, but the fact remains that Google Apps are the most popular on iOS & Android. You can't claim to be competitive without them and Google has strategic reasons not to ever bring them to Windows Mobile. They literally can keep the oxygen supply choked off to WM by never bringing those apps.

      Literally it would take Microsoft re-creating Youtube(MSTube?) getting all the big content creators, VEVO and everyone else on it to break Google's monopoly. Then MS would need to make Bing > Google Search. MS Maps > Google Maps, Groove Music the best, and so on.

      Chances of that ever happening? Less than 0.

  7. 0 | Reply
    robincapper Alpha Member #2080 - 1 month ago

    No apps isn't a problem when you think beyond apps. Agents, services and cloud will make 'the app decade' (or so) a quaint memory. Azure is the next mobile platform

  8. 0 | Reply
    cyloncat Alpha Member #1816 - 1 month ago

    Well, something changed. I've had Cortana installed on my iPhone for months, but I don't use it. It got updated yesterday, and since them I'm getting push notifications from Cortana on both my iPhone and my Apple Watch. "Good morning, sunshine! Here's what your day looks like" as well as lunch recommendations. Looks like the AI push is going well beyond Microsoft devices.

  9. 0 | Reply
    dgloff Alpha Member #2233 - 1 month ago

    Having seen Nadella speak on this topic numerous times (but not this one), I think his phrase "most ultimate mobile device" refers not to the unparallelled awesomeness of some yet-to-be-released hardware, but rather to the portability of the particular class of device, and what he feels they can accomplish in that space.  A laptop is kinda portable; ultrabook, a little moreso.  Surface and other tablets are more mobile than ultrabooks, small ones particularly so.  Smartphones are the most mobile/portable devices currently in the market that still retain significant functionality.

    He's speaking about what innovations he feels MS can uniquely bring to the Smartphone market, not that they've got some world-killer device waiting in the wings to wipe iOS and Android off the map.