So Windows Phone is well and truly dead (excepting a tiny handful of Windows 10 devices). There it lies, buried in the graveyard of failed smartphone platforms. Cause of death: Android. Yes, really.
Apple changed everything in mobile, but in the chaotic years after its release, there was a massive opportunity to be the alternative that would ultimately dominate marketshare. It was Microsoft’s for the taking, but Google got there first.
I started reflecting on what happened to these smartphones as the 10th anniversary of the iPhone came and went. And the thought that kept occurring to me is how little everybody knew about what was about to happen to the smartphone industry before the iPhone came along. Nobody knew what they didn’t know.
That led to some hilarious quotes from competitors that are easy to mock now. BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie’s “in terms of a sort of a sea-change for BlackBerry, I would think that’s overstating it.” Palm CEO Ed Colligan’s “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s “It doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard.”
After they said those things, all of those CEOs tried (and failed) to adequately respond to the iPhone. BlackBerry duct-taped extra software on its aging platform and tried to make the whole screen a giant button. Palm made a go of it with webOS but couldn’t get carrier support, nor make products good enough for consumers to go out and buy their devices.
Microsoft’s response was Windows 6.5, a hack on an old OS that wasn’t designed for full touchscreen devices. Then Windows Phone 7, which was an admirable reboot with genuinely new design ideas. It came too late, though, and floundered. Windows Phone 8 took a bad situation and made it worse by angering Microsoft’s surprisingly passionate fanbase when they learned existing devices wouldn’t get software upgrades. (The same thing happened with Windows Phone 10, though by then it hardly mattered.)
Oh yeah, one more thing: somewhere in there Microsoft bought Nokia and frittered away the most storied and trusted phone brand in history. Cool job.
So while Microsoft didn’t do itself any favors, I’d argue strongly that all these machinations and flailings weren’t a response (or weren’t only a response) to the iPhone. The real enemy was the company that had set its sights on Microsoft’s phone ambitions since before the iPhone was released.
That company was Google, of course, and it only tangentially wanted to take on the iPhone. Google’s real target was always Microsoft, and it hit the bullseye.
The best window into what Google was thinking about when it was creating Android is the 2012 legal fight it had with Oracle about Java. The deeply nerdy API details of that case don’t really matter now, but the process of a public, protracted court battle gives us a special and unique gift: testimony and documents.
Here’s some of what then-CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, had to say about the creation of Android:
Q. And once Android came aboard and Mr. Rubin came aboard, was there a business strategy formed about what Android would be and how it worked?
Q. Can you tell the jurors about that? What was it?
A. My recollection was that the the strategy that evolved over the first year, which would be roughly 2000 and — 2006, was to build a platform — which, again, we previously discussed — that would be free and clear of some of the other licensing restrictions that were slowing down the industry, and that would, in fact, create a viable alternative to the then key players at the time. As you’ve earlier seen in the documents.
So our idea was that if we made something that was generally available, it would provide a lot of customer value; it could be a very large platform; and it would grow very quickly. All of which has, indeed, occurred.
Q: When you say open or alternative to what was out there, tell our jurors what you mean by that.
A. Well, at the time, we were quite concerned about Microsoft’s products. It’s hard to relate to that now, but at the time we were very concerned that Microsoft’s mobile strategy would be successful.
It’s also true at the time that the primary player in the industry was Nokia, who had an operating system called Symbian, which we were also concerned about.
This was before the iPhone was announced and before the whole iPhone revolution occurred.
This all sounds awfully precious now, with the benefit of hindsight. The very idea that Google was terrified of Windows Mobile is hard to wrap your head around. After all, we all know that was the iPhone that changed everything in mobile, it was the iPhone that made all those other companies launch half-cocked jerry-rigged products as a stopgap before remaking their platforms later on.
Indeed, that happened with Android, too. Andy Rubin famously revamped Android’s launch plan when we saw the original iPhone presentation:
Rubin was so astonished by what Jobs was unveiling that, on his way to a meeting, he had his driver pull over so that he could finish watching the webcast.
“Holy crap,” he said to one of his colleagues in the car. “I guess we’re not going to ship that phone.”
But go back to Schmidt in that trial for a second. The thing he and Google’s other executives were worried about was ensuring that mobile users continued to have access to Google search. He saw clearly that there would end up being a software platform that lots of different manufacturers would license and use to make phones, and he wanted Google to be on it.
Rather than trust Microsoft and Nokia and everybody else to keep their platforms open to them, Google just went ahead and made the open platform itself. And then it released it to anybody to use for free, undercutting Microsoft’s licensing fee for Windows Mobile.
What killed Windows Phone was getting beat to market by Android. It took way too long for Microsoft to release a viable competitor to the iPhone – it didn’t really land until 2010. By then, Android had already been around for two years and Verizon was selling the Droid for a year.
Back then, despite the disruption in the market that the iPhone brought, US carriers still had the power to determine winners and losers. And since only AT&T had the iPhone, the other three in the US were casting about for their competitive product. Verizon, in particular, was going to be the kingmaker.
In 2008, Verizon tapped BlackBerry’s Storm, which was a colossal failure. In 2009, Verizon looked at what else was around. Palm hadn’t been able to convince Verizon to pick up the Palm Pre and Windows Phone 7 was still a year off. So Verizon went all in on Droid and the rest is history.
This is obviously an oversimplified timeline. Nokia woulda-coulda-shoulda made a move, for example. Palm and BlackBerry and everybody else made enough mistakes to fill books.
But in mobile, there’s no greater woulda-coulda-shoulda than Windows Phone. Everything that made Android successful was stuff that Microsoft was basically already trying to do. It’s just that Microsoft did it not quite as well, not quite as free, and way too late.