Thinking About Microsoft’s “Most Ultimate Mobile Device”

Posted on November 23, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Windows Phones with 36 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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Comments (37)

37 responses to “Thinking About Microsoft’s “Most Ultimate Mobile Device””

  1. Avatar

    4288

    There is a solution they could bring back: Astoria

    • Avatar

      2316

      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.

    • Avatar

      2428

      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. Avatar

    1561

    <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!

    • Avatar

      2069

      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). 

       

      Petr

  3. Avatar

    5510

    Paul , U have been wrong so many times, if you don't see a solution, then it means that there is a solution. You know what? Lol....I see it.

  4. Avatar

    4834

    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.

     

     

    • Avatar

      399

      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.

  5. Avatar

    2532

    There is no easy solution to windows 10 mobile going forward. I used windows 8.1 on a 1520 for over a year, loved it. But as developers started pulling apps from the windows phone platform. I'm looking at you Chase Bank. (Yes I know there was the web site, but that sucked compared to the app) and newer apps did not have a windows phone version. I had to switch to android running Microsoft Apps. Which is good enough. I would love to see a sexy windows surface Uber Phone. But I'm not holding my breath.

  6. Avatar

    5767

    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?

    • Avatar

      940

      In reply to MutualCore:

      Throw more good money after bad?

      • Avatar

        5767

        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. Avatar

    8651

    The most ultimate mobile device is the cloud

  8. Avatar

    2371

    I  think that Paul is forgetting the capabilities the Centennial Bridge brings to win32 programs.  No reason some of them will not work as an app on a phone also with minor modification.  Such as detect it is running on a ARM phone without Continuum active and go full screen.  Make minor updates to UI to make usable with touch.

  9. Avatar

    5394

    The key is PC Plus, not Phone with PC. Don't apologize for being a PC first that has phone call capability. Thus people will gravitate to using their large tablet as a PC, which means mostly with the browser. The problem with this approach is Edge is really bad. I doesn't scale well on 6 to 8 inch tablets. I suppose they already given up on small tablets. Surface starts at 10 inch screens. That's a shame since a compact high resolution screens looks quite amazing with a efficient operating system. Windows needs many improvements to ever be considered competitive. 

  10. Avatar

    5554

    Not sure why consumers would suddenly care about a windows phone just because it has a Surface sticker on it.  So unless MS plans a complete reboot of Wmobile, It'll still be the same crappy, buggy mobile OS with no apps that turns consumers off. 

    • Avatar

      54

      In reply to PeteB:

      I use a Lumia 950XL, and while I get the occasional issue, W10M is quite stable on my phone, and that's even using the Fast Ring Insider Preview. W10M, like Windows 10, works fine for most people, but occasionally you do get people that just seem to find a lot of problems. That's doesn't mean that Windows 10, or W10M are buggy, otherwise I'd be seeing the bugs as well. It just means that you were unlucky and got a bad install.

      Windows 10, and W10M aren't perfect, but neither is Android or iOS. The major downside to Windows 10 is the view that Microsoft can't do anything right, and they themselves keep adding to that view by their own actions. Microsoft never fully committed to W10M, so the phones could never succeed. There's also the fact that the majority of their services are US-centric, so anyone outside the US doesn't get the full benefit of those services. Even here in Australia, we can't get things like Bing Rewards, nevermind countries that don't even have Cortana.

      I'd like to see a Surface branded premium phone, but with the apparent lack of support for W10M from Microsoft, and the number of apps starting to drop off, I don't think it will ever really happen, which in itself is a big shame. W10M could have been so good...

  11. Avatar

    4964

    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

  12. Avatar

    5485

    I think that there is a market expectation that either the smartphone or the tablet, or a combination of both will replace the PC both in entertainment and productivity. Mind you PC devices, Windows or Mac will always be for the most demanding and specialized work tasks and entertainment/games. But for productivity tools most used, all and any Office like stuff and light multimedia (image and sound) there will be not need. That is at least the expectation.

    Yet, challenge for Apple and Google is exposed by the fact that such an expectation has not yet materialized and this is giving space and time to MS to adapt ...

    Tim Cook did not came with anything positive to Apple from a product perspective as a CEO. I would say, that from that perspective Apple is actually now worst than it was with SJ. Mind you SJ already predicted that Tablets and Smartphones would fill in 100% such a role. So the iPad Pro would nor ever been Surface follower in SJ mind. Remember if you need a Pen you already failed stance of his? Well but he had never said anything about the Mouse for instance.

    My impression is that such an objective will never be materialized without a mouse soon enough. An iPad Pro like device , with a proper keyboard and mouse support would most probably do it. It already has most apps to achieve such a goal and remember tha A9X is already faster that a Core M5. Furthermore it does advanced graphics and sound in ways that bring any Core M to its knees. 

    Meanwhile MS is moving, exploring ways to perpetuate Windows. The challenge has been in making their approach and devices more stable, reliable and robust. The Surface line stance looks good, but its riddled with these problems from my experience with the SP3. So much so that I am inclined to move on.

    Yet, then Apple came with this year answer with MacBook Pro. Such a poor answer it is, making me actually rethink my inclination. I'm not talking about the ports, that for me is welcome and whatever limitation are short lived.

    One, is that on an already expensive option it became more expensive for little value. The touch bar replace the function keys well. But if that justifies the increased pricing ... it does not. Secondly the fact they made an option without the touch while artificially manipulating the customer into a higher prices using the number of ports and speed its a breach of trust on the consumer and their own innovation. Forcing the customer to go for a more expensive option not due to the Touch Bar, but due to the number of ports. That is Tim Cook for you, He does not even trust their own innovation to ride sales, unlike SJ. Furthermore, under the ruling of Tim Cook, not only the iPad is still not replacing a PC, but the Ma line has been neglected to jewelry. 

    This is all good news for MS. If they only fixed the problems above ...

     

     

  13. Avatar

    5767

    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?

    • Avatar

      556

      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.

       

  14. Avatar

    6130

    If I were Microsoft, and since the iPhone already uses Microsoft technology for Mail and other things, I'd build on the Islandwood bridge project for Visual Studio (if that's what it was called) and enable Windows Phones to run iOS apps. They are doing so much with iOS code at the moment, this seems like the best way forward since they couldn't get Android apps to convert easily. I left my 950XL on the side as there were several apps I needed for business that were never going to come to Windows Phone - I know reluctantly have an iPhone. iOS is OK, it does what I need it to do; I prefer Windows Phone though.

  15. Avatar

    4882

    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.

  16. Avatar

    6844

    Not everyone in the market needs or wants apps. If Microsoft can get a critical amount of those people then the developers will come.

    • Avatar

      5721

      In reply to kenhes:

      Totally agree, I'm satisfied with the current crop of apps in the store, and if MS can increase users the rest of the apps will come.  If MS would create a premium device I would leave IOS quick for the continuity of MS products. 

       

    • Avatar

      8444

      In reply to kenhes:

      What a delusional contradictory comment.

      You are saying: "if Microsoft gets people who don't want/need apps developers will come"

      UR funny! 

    • Avatar

      7066

      In reply to kenhes:

      99% of consumers want apps and the more the better, saying not everyone wants apps is delusional. if I think of something I need...say a Chik Fila or a Kroger app or a PlentI rewards app they are there. On Windows 10 mobile the apps just aren't there.

       

      My suggestion has always been to make sort of a Windroid device. a Windows Phone built on Android software...all the Windows services with access to all the apps in the Play store.

    • Avatar

      399

      In reply to kenhes:

      If you don't want/need apps, why are you buying a smartphone?

  17. Avatar

    4267

    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.

  18. Avatar

    5721

    I don't understand why MS doesn't create a premium device?  They have arguably never created a "premium device" (the composite body Lumia's were not premium IMHO), but as with the Surface line and Apple, we know for certain people buy premium hardware and the OEM can make good money doing it.

    • Avatar

      8651

      In reply to Edward_Grego:

      It's hard to satisfy such a broad range of users that share very little in common. Gamers share a lot of things in common thus making it easier for a group like the Xbox group to focus on solving the top key problems that user base has.

       

      When it comes to smartphones they are essentially the most personal swiss army knife. Your smartphone delivers an experience that is most probably custom tailored to  you. Mine does the same for me, and so on and so forth. To create a product that can appeal to such a wide range of users would be a nightmare.

       

      Apple gets it. Microsoft gets it too. The Microsoft fanbase doesn't. Apple hasn't changed what works witht he iPhone. Version 7 introduced softer edges and more digital textures and design but it wasn't that radical of a departure from the core experience. Icons launching apps that bring you goodness. A notification bar that serves as a quick action bar. That's the primary theme of the smartphone. Under the hood, there are thousands if not millions of software gears that make things like maps, music, video, and a long list of other awesomeness come to life.

       

      On the exterior, the material used in each phone regardless of the manufacturer will always dictate the opinion that the users will form about that device's craftsmanship. The Nokia devices had amazing hardware but ran either outdated OS (Symbian) or unpopular OS (Windows Phone). The software on those devices was pretty solid. No crashes no hangs. Yet the quality of the device rarely if ever was determined based on the software.

       

      As consumers we expect the software to just work and most average users out there don't understand the amount of blood sweat and tears that goes into making software work. Hardware by contrast while much less forgiving when flaws seep into its design, is sort of much simpler to determine whether it is a hit or a miss. Software on the other hand not so simple.

      In conclusion, the ultimate mobile device, is one that runs on all phones, and tablets regardless of who manufactured the hardware and delivers you value that you want. The ultimate mobile device is the one that is already there before you get there and travels with you anywhere you go, and is never in your hand.

       

      The ultimate mobile device is the cloud...

    • Avatar

      5554

      In reply to Edward_Grego:

      Because a Premium device would require a premium OS, which WMobile is not.

  19. Avatar

    514

    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?

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