Flashback: a decade of Microsoft’s failed attempts to reconquer the phone market

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Scarlette Lennon24 July 2022Last Update : 3 weeks ago
Flashback: a decade of Microsoft’s failed attempts to reconquer the phone market

Microsoft and Verizon somehow managed to kill the Kin phones twice. The first generation came out in 2010 and was designed by Danger – the company behind the Hiptop (aka T-Mobile Sidekick). Danger was home to the likes of Andy Rubin and Matias Duarte, which people familiar with Android history should know quite well.

We’ve covered the Kin story before, now we wanted to focus on what happened in the following decade. Well, Kin’s fate was seemingly sealed from the beginning since the Windows Phone 7 platform was announced in early 2010.


Evolution of Metro UI: Zune HD
Evolution of Metro UI: Windows Phone 7

Evolution of Metro UI: 2nd generation Zune • Zune HD • Windows Phone 7

Originally, Microsoft thought it could follow the same game plan as with Windows Mobile and indeed the PC – license the software, let others worry about the hardware. The company made some demands on the hardware, which held back the early WP7 handsets. For example, only WVGA (480 x 800px) resolution was supported initially. There was also an approved list of chipsets which caused WP7 handsets to lag behind Android in the CPU core counter race.

You can read our early review of Windows Phone 7. The cons list tells the story of a seriously undercooked OS – no copy/paste, no multitasking, no USB mass storage mode, no system-wide file manager, no Wi-Fi tethering, and on and on continue.

Hubs were a core idea in Windows Phone 7
Hubs were a core idea in Windows Phone 7
Hubs were a core idea in Windows Phone 7
Hubs were a core idea in Windows Phone 7
Hubs were a core idea in Windows Phone 7

Hubs were a core idea in Windows Phone 7

Despite all this, the first WP7 phones were launched later in 2010, coming from several different manufacturers – HTC, Samsung, LG and even Dell. Everyone was already making Android devices, but now the maker of the dominant desktop operating system (and one of the standout mobile OSes of the years before) had gotten into the game. Would this be the end of the fledgling Android OS? Well, with the benefit of hindsight, no, not at all. While we’re on the subject of hindsight, Microsoft employees were a bit premature when they held a mock funeral for the iPhone, confident in the success of Windows Phone.

Let’s look at the early offers. There was the HTC HD7, a successor to the legendary HD2. There was also the HTC 7 Pro, which had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and so did the HTC Arrive, which harkened back to the “communicator”-style devices HTC built in the early days. The HTC 7 Surround had a pop-out speaker instead, which was an odd choice given that early versions of the WP7 weren’t great for music (there was no equalizer for one).

HTC HD7
HTC 7 Pro
HTC arrives
HTC 7 Surround

HTC HD7 • HTC 7 Pro • HTC Arrive • HTC 7 Surround

While HTC was responsible for most of the list, there were others as well. As a successor to the Omnia from Samsung, the original being one of the more impressive Windows Mobile devices. LG chipped in its own famous smartphone brand, Optimus, with the LG E900 Optimus 7. The Dell Venue Pro looked like a reliable business phone, with its vertical slide-out keyboard and eyes set on BlackBerrys.

Samsung I8700 Omnia 7
LG E900 Optimus 7
Dell Venue Pro

Samsung I8700 Omnia 7 • LG E900 Optimus 7 • Dell Venue Pro

For 2011, Microsoft managed to secure cooperation with the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world – Nokia. The new Lumia series made its debut with the Lumia 800 and 710. Since the Finns were busy, they recycled most of the Nokia N9 hardware when they made the Lumia 800. These two were the only WP7 phones that Microsoft’s new key partner managed to deliver, which took some of the wind out of Windows Phone 7.

Nokia Lumia 800
Nokia Lumia 710

Nokia Lumia 800 • Nokia Lumia 710

Both were powered by the Snapdragon S2, one of the few chipsets on Microsoft’s approved list. With a single CPU core, it looked a bit underpowered in late 2011, considering that in May the LG Optimus 2X entered the Guinness Book of Records as the first dual-core phone. This is one of those occasions where the limited hardware support dragged WP7 down.

Of course it wasn’t WP7 anymore, Microsoft released a new version called Windows Phone 7.5 “Mango”. By September, it was already rolling out to older devices, and Lumias came with it out of the box.

Flashback: a decade of Microsoft's failed attempts to recapture the phone market

This is what the launch version of Windows Phone should have looked like – as we note in our review, it added important features like multitasking and Wi-Fi hotspot functionality, plus minor ones like letting you choose a local file for a ringtone. In mid-2012, the update was actually mandatory, as Windows Marketplace required v7.5 for downloads.

The original version 7.0 was woefully incomplete, but later in 2012 we found that the situation was much worse – Windows Phone 8 was announced in June and soon it was confirmed that older devices will not be updated, leaving them stuck on the now defunct 7.x branch.

Why? Well, there was a reason why WP7 phones were behind in the CPU core counter race. Despite external similarities, the two OSes were very different internally – WP7 was based on the Windows CE core (which led to Windows Mobile), WP8 was based on the new Windows RT (which powered Windows 8 tablets). It’s what enabled multi-core support, superior graphics with higher resolution screens, NFC and more.

Flashback: a decade of Microsoft's failed attempts to recapture the phone market

As a consolation prize, the older phones got the update to Windows Phone 7.8, which spruced up the user interface but did not address the key limitations of the operating system.

We haven’t mentioned apps until now, but it’s about time we did. Any new OS starts with a limited set of apps it can run, which is painful since smartphones are all about apps. However, WP8 was so different from WP7 that software developed for the original 2010 and 2011 phones just wouldn’t run on the new ones, forcing developers to start from scratch.

Flashback: a decade of Microsoft's failed attempts to recapture the phone market

Moving on to 2013, Microsoft officially announced the purchase of Nokia’s Devices & Services unit. The €5.4 billion deal made Microsoft the leading maker of Windows Phone devices, as other brands had scaled back their involvement.

The deal closed in 2014, and in October a rebranding effort began to turn “Nokia Lumia” into “Microsoft Lumia”. Other manufacturers were still in the game, but only just – Lumia phones accounted for 90% of phones using the platform at the time.

Flashback: a decade of Microsoft's failed attempts to recapture the phone market

Microsoft soldiered on and in 2015 unveiled Windows 10, which was supposed to be the last version of Windows. Just a day later, it announced the mobile version of the OS. This also underwent a rebranding, dropping the “phone” and going back to “mobile” – Windows 10 Mobile.

Unsurprisingly, a long list of Lumias were announced as the first devices to update to 10. Microsoft didn’t want to repeat the same mistake and strand its users on an old OS while it starts from scratch.

Flashback: a decade of Microsoft's failed attempts to recapture the phone market

The Lumia 1020, a Windows successor to the Nokia 808 PureView, wasn’t invited to the party, but one was back on WP8.1. However, the Lumia 930 and the huge (well 6″ seems compact today) Lumia 1520 went up to 10.

We’d like to circle back to 2012’s Lumia 920 for a moment (which was also stuck on WP8.1). It was the first phone with optical image stabilization, aka OIS, which (at least according to Nokia itself) gave it PureView cred. So did the 808’s multiple aspect ratios, where it could capture both 4:3 and 16:9 images while losing as little resolution as possible. By the way, the promo campaign for Lumia 920 got Nokia in trouble.

Nokia Lumia 1020
Nokia Lumia 930
Nokia Lumia 1520
Nokia Lumia 920

Nokia Lumia 1020 • Nokia Lumia 930 • Nokia Lumia 1520 • Nokia Lumia 920

Moving on to 2015, the Lumia well was drying up, but it went out with a bang – the Lumia 950 and 950 XL launched in late 2015. These were the best Windows phones ever made. However, there were only a handful of Lumias that launched with Windows 10 Mobile, the other two being the Lumia 550 and 650.

Microsoft Lumia 950
Microsoft Lumia 950 XL
Microsoft Lumia 550
Microsoft Lumia 650

Microsoft Lumia 950 • Microsoft Lumia 950 XL • Microsoft Lumia 550 • Microsoft Lumia 650

Launched in 2016, the Lumia 650 was the last of its kind. In 2017, Microsoft pulled the plug on WP8.1, with Joe Belfiore saying that bug fixes and security fixes will continue, but there won’t be any new features for the phones stuck on 8.x.

In January 2019, Microsoft began recommending Windows Phone users switch to Android or iOS. In December, it officially waved goodbye, promising to only support Office apps for current devices until January 2021.

Microsoft had given up on making its own OS for smartphones, but it was not yet out of the smartphone market. In 2020, it unveiled the dual-screen Surface Duo. It ran Android, but Microsoft heavily customized the user interface with ideas about powerful split-screen multitasking. It wasn’t a foldable phone, but it featured some of the same advantages (and disadvantages).

This was followed by the Surface Duo 2, which improved some early flaws (especially around the camera, battery and lack of a cover screen), but these devices are still niche products rather than serious competitors in the market.

Microsoft Surface Duo
Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Microsoft Surface Duo • Microsoft Surface Duo 2

There was supposed to be a larger Surface Neo (with two 9″ screens) running Windows 10X instead of Android, but with the same ideas for the multitasking user interface. However, the project was delayed and later quietly canceled. The same was Windows 10X itself, for that matter.

For what it’s worth, some of the work done on 10X was released with Windows 11 (10 really wasn’t the final version). Windows 11 can run ARM-based Android apps on x86 PCs, and it can run x86 Windows apps on ARM hardware. Microsoft finally has the unified operating system it dreamed of, not that it would make a difference to its smartphone ambitions. These days, Microsoft sees the smartphone market as an opportunity to sell apps and services, not phones.

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