Being first is obviously the best, but number three isn't so bad. When you're third in an Olympic sport, you still get recognized with a medal. Of course, that perspective changes a little when there are only three competitors, and you're so far behind first and second place that it's like all you did was register for the event and got third place by default. That seems to be the space Windows Phone currently occupies in the mobile market.
Actually, according to the latest data from NetMarketShare.com, Android and iOS combined own more than 90% of the mobile platform market, and Windows Phone is fifth behind Java ME and Symbian. NetMarketShare.com measures actual usage, as opposed to sales data, and Java ME and Symbian are still commonly used around the world. However, when a customer walks into one of the four major wireless providers in the United States, the choices basically come down to Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry, so we'll focus on those platforms.
I've always maintained that Microsoft should have been the default mobile platform for businesses. Back when mobile phones were just starting to take off as a thing, Microsoft still enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the desktop and server market, as well as the web browser and office productivity market. The value proposition of a mobile OS that integrates seamlessly with the PCs and software businesses already rely on, and that can be managed and maintained through the existing Microsoft infrastructure, should have been an easy sale to Microsoft's enterprise customers.
Instead, Microsoft allowed RIM (now BlackBerry) to carve out a dominant stake in the mobile device market among business customers. The evidence of just how valuable that role was in the grand scheme of things can be seen by the fact that BlackBerry is inexplicably still hanging around despite losing relevance and revenue consistently for years — or the fact that its latest "innovation" was to essentially re-introduce the old BlackBerry smartphone that already plummeted to obscurity, thanks to iOS and Android.
I'm not suggesting that Microsoft would have fared better than BlackBerry had it been the dominant mobile platform at the time. I think there's a very good chance that the same arrogance and hubris, which caused BlackBerry to ignore the shifting landscape while its empire crumbled around it, would have also occurred at Microsoft. The difference is that Microsoft has deeper pockets and broader value for its business customers, so it would be better able to weather and possibly rebound from that situation.
But alas, Microsoft sat on the sidelines while mobile took off. It pulled the plug on Windows Mobile and went back to the drawing board to build Windows Phone from scratch, while iOS and Android all but put BlackBerry out of business and claimed the entire mobile market for themselves. It almost doesn't even matter whether Windows Phone is a great mobile OS or not. By the time Windows Phone hit the street, it was already late to the party.
The question remains, though, "Was Microsoft too late, or can Windows Phone still achieve relevance as a mobile platform?"
There's one thing that simultaneously works for and against Windows Phone: inertia. On one hand, businesses and consumers that have already invested in the iOS or Android ecosystems have inertia to continue doing so. Even if Windows Phone is a great OS, and even if Windows Phone devices are awesome, making a switch from a different platform means having to buy the same apps and accessories all over again, plus dealing with the learning curve of the unique conventions of the new platform.
On the other hand, there's substantial inertia for the Microsoft ecosystem — for businesses much more than consumers, but it still exists. Windows is still the dominant desktop OS. Microsoft Office is still the dominant productivity suite. Internet Explorer still has more market share than all of its rivals combined. That means that there's still an opportunity for Microsoft to develop a mobile device that's so seamlessly integrated with the tools people rely on every day that using Windows Phone becomes the better choice — the path of least resistance.
Windows 10 will converge the platforms, and the applications that run on them to an extent, so that seems like a step in the right direction. However, Microsoft has also been aggressively developing native apps for rival mobile platforms.
Windows Phone doesn't need to knock iOS or Android off their respective pedestals or take first place in order to be relevant, but I think it's fair to argue that if Microsoft can't grow Windows Phone into more than a rounding error blip in the mobile market, it should stop wasting its time and resources on the platform.
What do you think about the future of Windows Phone? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.
Tony Bradley is a principal analyst with Bradley Strategy Group. He is a respected authority on technology, and information security. He writes regularly for Forbes, and PCWorld, and contributes to a wide variety of online and print media outlets. He has authored or co-authored a number of books, including Unified Communications for Dummies, Essential Computer Security, and PCI Compliance.