Because the smartphone game — at least this round of it — is more or less decided. Microsoft wasn't just trying to sell phones, it was trying to sell its own platform. And when it comes to smartphone platforms, Apple and Google have won, with an estimated 96 percent of the world's market share between them, according to Gartner's February report on the smartphone market. Microsoft, in that report, came in third, with 2.8 percent of the market.
Let's repeat that: 2.8 percent.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. It's easy to laugh at Microsoft now, but it's worth remembering that there was a time when smart analysts thought the mobile operating system Windows Phone could actually overtake Apple's iOS by the end of 2015. Windows Phone had some interesting features, it promised integration with the world's dominant computer operating system, and those candy-colored Lumia phones usually were pretty well-made.
But by the time Nadella took the wheel at Microsoft — and former Nokia head Stephen Elop said "so long" soon thereafter — it seemed like Microsoft's whole smartphone business wasn't long for this world. Instead of playing catch-up on hardware, Nadella has focused the company's efforts more squarely on software and the cloud, where its mobile efforts have actually seen a rebirth. Rather than trying to get more developers to write programs for its own anemic app store, Microsoft's focused on getting its own apps in more places. Since Nadella took over, the Office suite has gotten pretty good mobile apps, even for non-Microsoft products including — gasp! — the iPhone.
And Microsoft is also clearly thinking beyond apps. It may be hard to remember, but Microsoft was actually the company to kick off this whole "bots are the future" wave of discussion at its Build conference in late March. And while its efforts to actually launch a bot didn't go so well at first — Tay, the innocent bot with the millennial voice ended up getting seriously corrupted by humanity — the company should get credit for a little forward thinking.
After all, bots really could signal the decline of apps, by unifying the services you get from a dozen or more separate apps into one product. Assistants like Microsoft's Cortana are already trying to unify
reminder, calendar, traffic and search apps — and that's just the beginning. In an ideal world, consumers wouldn't have apps for every service on their phones at all; they'd just be able to rely on the AI assistant. And that's really the dream, isn't it? If we could actually have our own personal assistants instead of yet another piece of software to manage that is sort-of useful, some of the time.
Smartphones aren't over, of course. But they are becoming more important for what they can do rather than just what they are, and that seems to be Microsoft's focus moving ahead. It's pursuing a life operating system. Because whoever can really crack that code and build a central program that works everywhere — no matter what device we're using — will really be the leader of the next few years.