Opinion by Preston Gralla

Windows Mobile: The walking dead never die

Microsoft seems unwilling to pull the plug on a mobile OS that no one loves. It could lead a zombie existence for years.

sad windows phone
Mark Hachman

Opinion by Preston Gralla

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Microsoft’s Windows Mobile smartphone operating system:

A) Is alive, well and kicking.
B) Is finally about to be killed after billions of dollars thrown down the drain.
C) Continues to live a zombie life.
D) Is … wait. Microsoft has a smartphone operating system? Who knew?

The correct answer is C, but D would be an understandable response. In fact, A is the only answer with no truth about it. Microsoft has spent billions of dollars on Windows Mobile over the past 21 years (counting from the introduction of the Windows CE operating system for mobile devices), including paying approximately $7.9 billion to buy Nokia in 2014 — and then writing off $7.6 billion of the purchase in 2015. So there’s truth in answer B, except for the part about Microsoft preparing to kill it off.

And the answer really should be B. Microsoft has stunningly little to show for all that money spent. Sales were anemic last year, and the latest forecast from IDC says that in 2017, only 1.1 million Windows Mobile devices will be sold, an 80.9% decline from 2016. If its sales this year match the IDC forecast, it would have a minuscule 0.1% of the smartphone market. The IDC report says bluntly, “Windows Phone shipments continue to fall as the lack of new hardware partners, developer support, and overall enthusiasm for the platform show no immediate signs of recovery.”

There has been a lot of talk that Microsoft would finally pull the plug and leave the contest for mobile OS market share to the dominant players, Android and iOS. But what the company has been saying lately suggests that it won’t be putting Windows Mobile out of its misery.

The rumors that Windows Mobile would be killed began in earnest back in April, when Microsoft announced on the Windows Insider Blog that, from then on, “the build number and branch [for Windows Mobile] won’t match the builds we will be releasing for PC. This is a result of more work we’re doing to converge code into OneCore — the heart of Windows across PC, tablet, phone, IoT, HoloLens, Xbox and more as we continue to develop new improvements for Windows 10 Mobile and our enterprise customers.”

Windows Mobile was then put on its own “Feature2” branch. Putting it on its own branch, many people believed, meant that Microsoft would be spending less time developing it, and it would be easier to kill eventually. They noted that if Microsoft was converging Windows Mobile into the same codebase as all of Windows, it would make more sense for it stay on the main branch.

More recently, there have been rumors that Microsoft plans to build an operating system called Andromeda OS, which would be able to run on any device, whether it’s a phone, tablet, laptop or PC. But Andromeda isn’t expected to run on existing Windows Phones. So every Windows Phone in existence (admittedly, not many) would be left out in the cold.

Confused yet? You should be. All this is one more example of the twisted, unhappy life of a mobile operating system that seems to have no reason to be alive. And things continue to get even stranger. Recently, Windows Latest wrote that a leaked report said Microsoft would support existing Windows Phones until the end of 2018 and that Microsoft will be adding enterprise-focused features, such as mobile device management policies, a better VPN and improved security. That certainly seems to confirm that the ill-fated operating system will live on.

Windows Latest also reported that Microsoft spokesman Brandon LeBlanc said the enterprise features would be unveiled this summer. Now that summer is coming to an end, however, LeBlanc clarified what he meant by “summer,” according to Windows Latest: “Our definition of summer may differ from the calendar/metrological [sic] definitions.”

Given that, it may be a freezing day in Redmond — or anywhere else, for that matter — before those new features are made public. But, hey, if it’s winter in Redmond, it’s summer somewhere.

The upshot of all this? Windows Mobile lives on because Microsoft doesn’t want to anger its few remaining hardware partners or the rare enterprises that have bet on Windows Mobile. So Microsoft will continue to develop for it in some way. Just don’t expect billions to be spent on it. And don’t expect many new features. It will remain a zombie operating system that few people use and even fewer love.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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