Optimism is a renewable resource at Microsoft. In 2011, the company, in a belated attempt to catch up with Apple and Google in the smartphone world, announced a partnership with Nokia, the Finnish device maker. “There are other mobile ecosystems,” Nokia and Microsoft executives said at the time. “We will disrupt them.”
Last year, with sales flagging, Microsoft bought Nokia’s handset business for more than $7 billion, aiming to spur better results by more tightly coupling hardware and software.
Still, sales have not materialised. The global market share of the company’s phones was just under 3% in the third quarter, lower than the year before. Analysts, long sceptical about Microsoft’s mobile strategy, have largely thrown up their hands. And in perhaps the biggest slight of all, many mobile-app developers, who can make or break mobile technologies by supporting or ignoring them, are paying little or no attention to Windows Phone.
On Wednesday, Microsoft plans to unveil details about Windows 10, a new operating system for PCs, at an event at its headquarters outside Seattle. The operating system, the company says, will help win back developers by allowing them to more easily adapt PC applications to mobile devices. The company hopes it will also increase the availability of applications for — and lift sales of — the company’s smartphones.
The move is the biggest effort yet by Satya Nadella, who took over as chief executive nearly a year ago, to save the company’s moribund smartphone business. So far, Nadella has put Microsoft’s overall mobile offerings on a more practical path. Last year, he released the company’s
Office suite of applications for Apple iOS and Google Android devices, and he improved tools for developers of nearly all device brands.
The tactics have helped propel the company’s stock to a nearly 15-year high. Ben Thompson, an independent technology analyst who once helped manage Microsoft’s relationship with Windows developers, said he was “pleased with Microsoft’s strategy for the first time in a long time”.
But the company’s attempt to make Microsoft’s mobile platform relevant, he said, remains a challenge. “Microsoft can’t make that happen,” Thompson said. “It’s up to developers. I think the situation is pretty hopeless from that perspective.”
Microsoft declined to provide an interview with an executive before its event this week. But it is clearly not giving up.
“We’re making steady progress toward our vision of giving people a single Windows experience across a full range of devices,” Frank Shaw, a company spokesman, said in a statement. “With Windows 10, we’re moving to a more unified Windows platform for phones, tablets and PC, helping developers do more with their code.”
Microsoft hastens to say that its app store has over 560,000 apps, most of them for smartphones, up 60% from a year ago. (Apple and Google have said that each of their app stores has more than a million apps.)
And Microsoft says it offers from 85% to 95% of the apps that people tell the company they want on a smartphone. Netflix, Facebook, Spotify and other A-list apps are all available for Windows Phone.
Yet Microsoft’s numbers do not capture the slim pickings of other popular apps. People searching for Lyft, HBO Go or Snapchat will find no Windows Phone option. Nor will one find RunKeeper, a popular mobile app for joggers.
“The challenge is Android and iOS are innovating so quickly,” said Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of Redfin, an online real estate firm that does not make a Windows Phone app but makes one for iOS and Android.
“I think we could consider other platforms if it wasn’t so much work to keep up with the two major mobile platforms.”
Apps are not the only reason people buy smartphones, but they are a big part of it. And tepid support for the software by device makers and wireless carriers is a reason they avoid certain models. Executives at Huawei, a Chinese company with a fast-growing mobile business, have said they are discontinuing future Windows Phone devices because of slow sales.
Microsoft’s relationship with Samsung, which makes some devices that run Windows Phone, is also in trouble, but because of the Nokia acquisition.