The Metro experiment is dead: Time to unleash Windows Phone+
How Microsoft can capture the mobile market - properly
Analysis Is this the moment for Windows Phone 8, the overlooked diamond in the Redmond rough, to shine?
Now that Microsoft bigwigs have realised that cramming their desktop operating system into a touchscreen tablet format was unwise, to put it generously, how about scaling up the smartphone cousin to capture the exploding mobe market and the tablet world? That'll leave desktop users in peace with a desktop OS.
Let's set the scene for this turnaround, and it starts with the dismantling of Metro, the new tablet-friendly Windows 8 frontend: the Charge of the Metro Brigade has been reversed if some non-specific statements from Microsoft marketing executive Tami Reller are to be believed.
Reller suggested the new and controversial touchscreen-driven user interface introduced in Windows 8 will be overhauled. The FT interpreted her remarks as "a U-turn on Windows 8" and a "reverse course". Equally, those on-the-record remarks could be interpreted as a palliative and no more: another "we feel your pain" message to users battling the new Metro veneer.
It's unlikely that such a well-drilled PR operation as Redmond's would send a writer from such a useful conduit as the FT haring down the wrong path. It looks as though Microsoft is preparing for a reverse ferret.
When panic breaks out at Microsoft, the company makes terrible decisions: the "Kill Java" panic of the mid-1990s is an example of the company behaving as if its very existence was at stake, and behaving badly. In 2010, Apple's iPad caused another such fright.
In response, the early strategy was a bold but simple one: encourage third-party developers to create a new library of apps using a central Metro programming interface, allowing the software to run on Windows 8-powered PC desktops, ARM tablets, x86 slabs, laptop hybrids, smartphones and more without a rewrite for each targeted device.
Except it didn't actually turn out that way. Under Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, the Windows 8 desktop team developed a messianic fervour. It became obsessed by distractions such as the Microsoft-specified Surface laptop-tablet computers and the ARM port of Windows 8, Windows RT. The team wouldn't work with the Windows Phone 8 group to develop the crucial common programming interface the aforementioned strategy needed. So write-once run-anywhere was an illusion: three separate and barely compatible code bases are required to develop apps. Microsoft failed to deliver its strategy in the most basic way.
The pain was real enough, though. Windows 8 insisted on replacing the familiar desktop with the Metro screen of noddy widgets, which may look nice on a tablet but is absurd on a 1,900-pixel wide monitor when you're trying to do some work. It simply caused confusion and inconvenience for consumers and enterprise users.
Businesses didn't have the training budget to retrain their staff to use the new Metro interface, or if they did, they were happy to sit on the cash instead. So Microsoft found itself sacrificing an enterprise IT upgrade cycle in order to maintain Metro-everywhere. What Redmond didn't appear to calculate was the damage to the PC market as a whole. Fear and uncertainty over the radical new user interface appears to have played a contributing factor in poor PC sales, if people in the IT distribution channel are to be believed. All the channel wants to do is shift PCs.
Windows obviously gained a slick new touch-friendly interface and runs on all kinds of new devices - some of which aren't actually too bad. Your humble hack is thinking of Lenovo's tablets and particularly its IdeaPad Yoga convertible. It's an OK PC and an OK tablet. Then there's the ARM-powered Surface RT slab. Or anything RT, for that matter. High prices, terrible software, were just two reasons why Windows RT was dead on arrival.
At least former Metro General Steve Sinofsky found a use for a Surface RT device.
Desktop Windows users who don't have a touchscreen will no doubt welcome "a return to a more familiar PC interface" promised to the FT. Critics have admitted all along that without the Metro-first Maoism, Windows 8 is the best version of Windows. In fact, a strategy rethink could be the best thing to happen to Microsoft in a long time.
It even has a handy get-out clause.
Operation Rescue Redmond
The Charge of the Metro Brigade may have made sense when the route to gaining tablet market share involved simplifying a PC into something that could be operated by a fingertip and slotted comfortably into an A5 envelope. But the market has changed in the past three years: smartphones grew bigger and became more sophisticated. With five-inch displays now common place and "phablets" appealing way beyond gadget geeks to reach some unlikely parts of the market, it now makes more sense to enhance Windows Phone rather than cripple the desktop.
Windows Phone 8, Redmond's operating system for mobiles, is truly a jewel, and by contrast to Windows 8 desktop, it is well liked by its users. But it has been curiously neglected by Microsoft with a glacial pace of development. The Surface laptop hardware got all the love - and the marketing attention. It's almost as if Redmond is so proud of its work creating Windows Phone it doesn't want to sully the experience by actually selling it, and certainly not by breaking into a sweat by improving it at a competitive pace. That would acknowledge it was in, y'know, competition with Apple et al.
At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year your Reg writer heard potential computer makers grumble at this and Microsoft's insistence on maintaining rigid control. The Windows Phone chief's primary concern is "preserving the purity of his platform", one complained to me.
Now is surely the time to step up a gear, for the opportunity is apparent. Microsoft must recognise Windows Phone as its best bet for capturing mobile users. Yet staple features, such as on-device search just like Spotlight in iOS, are not yet present. The operating system's Me tile supports exactly the same services it did at launch in 2010 - not new and hip things such as Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest. You can't even flag up a message in the Windows Phone email client - a remarkable omission for a platform that's pitched at enterprises.
There is no 5-inch Windows Phone yet, of course, and the maximum resolution supported by WinPho 8 - 1280x768 - looks quite underwhelming alongside the latest 1920x1080 in the Samsung Galaxy S4 and other Google Android-powered flagships, such as the Xperia Z. As Nokia has proved, it doesn't need the latest and greatest hardware to run very well. But the hardware is secondary to getting the developer story straight.
Microsoft really needs a roadmap that spells out an ambitious future for Windows Phone - let's call it Windows Phone+ - which can scale up to tablets, and ensures it shares a central consistent programming interface with its Windows 8 cousins. Redmond could then ship Windows 8.1 desktop with this unified application interface and promise to support anyone shifting to this uniform approach.
Crucially, the desktop build of the OS should not force the Metro screen of widgets onto PC workers, nor should its software shun the keyboard, mouse and large screen combination that office workers prefer to use. This should not be beyond the wit of Redmond's brains.
Windows Phone chief Terry Myerson appears perfectly content with third or fourth place in the mobile world. But WinPho 8 is an attractive and decent product. At the old ruthless Microsoft, settling for even second place in the market wasn't an option for any executive. How times have changed. ®