Can Windows 10 save Windows Phone?

Can Windows 10 save Windows Phone?

The release of Microsoft's new Windows 10 operating system may be the last roll of the dice for its struggling mobile platform.

The future of Windows Phone is hanging in the balance: If the launch of Windows 10 doesn't improve the struggling mobile operating system's fortunes significantly then Microsoft may have no choice but to abandon it.

That's the view of Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research.  He says that at best the launch of Windows 10 may increase the market share of Microsoft's mobile operating system slightly, but doubts it will ever get close to double figures. IDC estimates that Windows Phone's market share is just 2.7 percent.

"Windows 10 does hold out some promise for Windows Phone, but it's not going to make an enormous difference," says Dawson. "Microsoft could abandon Windows on mobile if it continues to languish with a tiny market share."

A key plank in Microsoft's strategy to drive adoption of the newest version of Windows Phone called Windows 10 Mobile is the idea of universal apps. These app packages can be tailored to run on desktop, tablet and phone hardware running Windows 10 operating systems (and Microsoft's Xbox) with substantially the same code used on each platform.

[Related: Former Windows Phone designer defends Windows 10's big, controversial changes]

The problem with this approach, Dawson points out, is that the majority of mobile apps don't tend to be ones that would be used on a desktop device and vice-versa. That means that the availability of universal apps is likely to do little to address the "app gap" -- the lack of availability of Windows Phone apps which may explain why the operating system has only achieved a sub-three-percent market share.

A bridge over mobile waters

Microsoft has also announced a number of "bridges" that are designed to make it easier for Android, iOS and Web developers to port their apps to Microsoft's Windows 10 environments, including Windows 10 Mobile, but Dawson says that these, too, are unlikely to do much to address the app gap.

"These bridges are designed to lower the barrier to entry for developers that currently can't be bothered to do the development work from the ground up. But porting still involves some work, so the question as to whether it is worthwhile remains."

Porting is only a part of the process of bringing apps from other platforms to Windows, he adds. "There's also maintenance, bug fixing, adding new features and so on. So while these bridges may help with the initial port, they don't help with the investment in time required to maintain these apps. "

The danger is that some developers may try using these bridges, only to have their preconception that the Windows Phone platform is probably too small to be important confirmed, he adds. "Then Microsoft will be left with a load of abandonware and that looks bad."

Taking the free way

Avi Greengart, a research director at Current Analysis, says that with the launch of Windows 10 Microsoft is doing everything in its power to get more apps onto the Windows platform.  Also, with universal apps and by providing bridges for iOS and Android developers, the company is trying to seed the market by making Windows 10 Mobile free to most tablet and phone vendors, and offering the desktop version as a free upgrade to existing PC users.

[Related: What's the future for Windows Phone?]

"Microsoft has moved away from selling operating systems everyone had to pay to upgrade to Windows 95, for example to selling hardware, software and services," he says. "By making the Windows 10 user base as big as they can they are trying to persuade developers that Windows is still relevant."

Back in April Microsoft announced a strategic partnership with Android distribution startup Cyanogen to integrate Microsoft apps and services such as Bing, Skype, OneDrive, Office, OneNote and Outlook with Cyanogen OS. Jackdaw's Dawson says that this is part of a Microsoft "Plan B" that it will put in to action if Windows Phone's position in the market becomes hopeless.

"Microsoft is working with Cyanogen so I could see it investing in the company and then moving its phones from Windows Phone to Cyanogen OS. That's one possibility the other is to just remain platform agnostic."

(The company has also announced agreements with over 30 Android tablet manufacturers who will bundle Office apps with their tablets.)

Microsoft's Plan B?

Greengart doesn't predict the abandonment of Windows Phone any time soon, but says the company is already working on a different Plan B in case its Windows 10 strategy is not enough to make Windows 10 Mobile a success.

"Microsoft's Plan B is to be a software and services company on other platforms:  'If Windows doesn't succeed on phones, let's get people using Cortana on Android and Word on iPad, let's get people to write iOS apps that run on Azure in the cloud,'" he says.

"So while Plan A is to get as many apps and as much activity as it can on Windows on all form factors, Plan B is to transition revenues to ad-supported or subscription- or usage-based services. If Windows Phone went away but services became huge then that wouldn't be the end of the world for Microsoft."

How Windows 10 Mobile can succeed in business

Not all industry analysts are bearish about the prospects of Microsoft's mobile operating system, however. Nicholas McQuire, an enterprise research vice president at CSS Insight, says Windows 10 may help Windows 10 Mobile become an important player in the enterprise mobile operating system space.

McQuire reasons that for many companies wishing to standardize on a mobile platform for employees to run internal apps, iOS is simply too expensive. And supporting Android (either directly or as part of a BYOD strategy) is risky as there are too many versions of Android, resulting in excessively high support costs.

"So enter Microsoft. Companies with Microsoft systems will look at Microsoft mobile devices and deploy them for a much higher return. Companies with a handful of apps can buy eight or nine devices for the price of one iPhone," says McQuire.

"There is a lot of corporate interest in Microsoft's Windows 10 strategy of consistency across an array of screens, and I think that companies will gravitate towards that," he says.

If that happens then Windows 10 Mobile may end up being a niche mobile operating system for enterprise users. That's hardly the mass market iOS- and Android -killer consumer operating system that Microsoft originally envisaged when it launched Windows Phone, but it may now be the best that it can reasonably hope for.

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