Microsoft's new mobile strategy: Hearts and minds

In the first quarter of 2015, Windows Phone accounted for just 2.7 per cent of smartphones sold worldwide. With such a dismal number, one might expect Microsoft to retreat and for motivational posters declaring “At least we’re not BlackBerry!” to adorn the walls in Redmond.

But market share isn’t everything. Microsoft is a large ship that doesn’t turn quickly, but since Satya Nadella has taken the reigns, he’s made it clear he isn’t afraid to make - or unmake - big decisions.

Nothing demonstrated that more than the $7.6 billion write-off Microsoft took for its Nokia acquisition, about as large an admission of failure as one might see. Nobody believes that Nokia — or anything else — will prop up the Windows Phone ecosystem enough to significantly change Microsoft’s market share. But given recent strategic and tactical moves, it’s clear that Redmond is focusing on winning the war for something arguably more important than percentage points of market share: the hearts and minds of developers.

At its Build 2015 conference, Microsoft announced new development kits that will make it easier for developers to port their iOS and Android apps to Windows Phone. These kits allow developers to transfer code from .NET and Win32, reuse code from Android apps, and bring over apps for iOS written in Objective-C with few modifications.

This isn’t the first time developers have been promised cross-platform nirvana, but these most recent rollouts from Microsoft bring the “write once, deploy anywhere” dream a little closer to reality.

And in case these tools aren’t enough to tempt developers, Microsoft has one more trick up its sleeve: Windows 10 comes equipped with Windows Continuum, a feature that allows users to turn their smartphones into PCs and enables developers to release apps that work across all Windows devices.

This push for truly universal apps won’t come without its share of bugs, and it certainly isn’t a cure-all for Microsoft’s mobile woes. However, betting on developers is a smart, ambitious play that could help Windows turn its mobility strategy around while further strengthening its dominant role in enterprise software development.

Why Microsoft Is Betting on Developers

With its new toolkits, Windows Continuum, and a shiny new store equipped to support universal applications that can run on both mobile and desktop platforms, Windows 10 isn’t just appealing to consumers — it’s trying to attract the men and women behind the development curtain.

In a way, Microsoft is returning to its roots. In the late ‘90s, when the company was battling Java as a potential cross-platform threat (which seems almost cute now), it released .NET for developers to use for business applications. The move worked, drawing developers into the Microsoft ecosystem. Microsoft has since seen great success in marketing its products to enterprise customers, but it’s struggled to capture consumers’ attention — and that of the developers who serve them.

Developers go where the users are, but users want phones with a wide array of apps created by developers. No apps, no users, and no developers leads to a lack of developers, apps, and users. This dynamic has resulted in insufficient demand for developers to invest their time in creating apps for Windows, which means the Windows Phone ecosystem has been less desirable to users, fueling one factor (among many) that has perpetuated the vicious cycle eating away at Windows’ market share. By making Windows an attractive platform for developers, Microsoft is hoping to entice more developers to try their hand at Windows as a mobile platform.

The Future of Mobile in a Windows World

By all accounts, Windows 10 is off to a great start, and there are a few things developers can expect to see from Microsoft in the near future:

1. Free upgrades for life: With Windows 10, you may never buy another operating system again. Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 8.1 users will be eligible to upgrade to Windows 10 for free within a year of its release. Once users switch to Windows 10, Microsoft has committed to push out free upgrades for the life of the device. By keeping Windows dominant, the platform remains appealing for developers.

2. Cloud domination: Amazon Web Services still dominates cloud computing, but Microsoft isn’t fighting Amazon in the mobile war — it’s fighting Apple and Google. Neither player has a cloud offering that can compete with Microsoft Azure, so this could become Windows’ greatest weapon in the fight against iOS and Android.

3. Blurred lines: Consumers want their second screens to do everything their primary screens can, and if Windows Continuum is everything Microsoft has promised, they just might get their wish. Continuum will allow users to plug their smartphones into an HDMI display, connect a mouse and keyboard, and use their phone as a computer. Universal apps will be able to detect a device’s screen size and change the interface accordingly, blurring the line between PCs, tablets, and smartphones.

4. A new normal: By rolling out these new developer toolkits, Microsoft is taking the first step into the brave new world of cross-platform development. Recently, a few Googlers launched a cross-platform UI library and this experiment has already piqued the interest of the open-source community. As cross-platform development matures, “write once, deploy anywhere” could become the norm.

Although Android dominates the smartphone market today as Windows Phone clings to a life raft, past market trends show just how fickle the smartphone game can be: Between 2009 and 2011, Android grew from zero to 40 per cent market share. Microsoft has been around long enough to know that losing a battle for one generation of devices doesn’t mean losing the mobile war.

If Microsoft can maintain its position as the enterprise development ecosystem of choice, get developers on board, and expand the boundaries of the second screen, it doesn’t really matter whether Windows disrupts Google’s and Apple’s lead this year or next

As long as Microsoft continues to innovate and gun for developer market share, it will live to fight another day.

Kevin Castle, partner and CTO of Technossus