Windows Phone’s 2013: A Year In Perspective

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Windows Phone, Microsoft’s smartphone platform has ground out its place at the mobile table employing a combination of tenacity, marketing dollars, improving firmware, and, at last, a world-class device lineup.

It has not been an easy road for Microsoft, who launched Windows Phone 7 Series straight from the ashes of Kin, a time in which your uncle had more credibility in the mobile market. It came to the public nearly 2 years before Windows 8 did the same, for perspective.

And yet, following the release of Windows Phone 8 at the end of last year, along with new hardware from Nokia that could match, at last, rival devices, Windows Phone has outlasted BlackBerry, made market share progress, bolstered its app store depth, and has more or less become the accepted third place mobile platform.

Or, as Paul Thurrott wrote recently, “We’re number three. And no, that doesn’t suck.” But is that right?

The Struggle

It is something like vindication to see Windows Phone walk on its own two feet. If you were around when user interface experiments landed on Zune helped set the groundwork for much of Windows Phone’s GUI, there is a historical element at play in this narrative.

And, personally, I loved the idea behind Windows Phone the first time we got a taste, eventually calling for Microsoft to release a Windows Phone tablet in the pre-Windows 8 days. They did, but they called it Surface.

Still, we need to be careful. That Microsoft has answered the  “can we beat BlackBerry and become an accepted mobile player” question aside, most of its work still remains ahead of the company.

As Thurrott notes, Windows Phone ended 2012 with 2.8% global market share. It is concluding 2013 with 3.6%, a mere 28.57% increase in a year that we in the media are generally heralding as pivotal in the best possible sense for the company.

So, what gives? The mobile market is growing, and while Windows Phone is growing more quickly — hence its market share improvements — it is hardly tearing up the charts, and Android is increasingly taking on the mantle of smartphone hegemon.

Android

Thurrott details the precise issue that I think could constrain Windows Phone’s forward momentum, perhaps lowering a ceiling onto to how far it can grow in 2014 and beyond:

2013 was, alas, the year that Android became the Windows of the mobile world. Android surpassed 80 percent market share in Q3, which was a big story.

I completely agree with the above.

Here’s a question that you should have an answer to: If Android can show up late to Apple’s game, and utterly crush its market share around the world, what chance does the scrappy, and far smaller Windows Phone have?

It depends on what we decide to call success. Surely 5% market share is not success for Microsoft. 10% could be, but Apple won’t cede that space, and still builds the best smartphone hardware, while Android has been all but unstoppable in recent years. I again agree with Thurrott here, who says “Windows Phone needs double digit market share globally before we can truly declare success.”

So, where to next is my question for Windows Phone. If it manages another year of 28% market share growth, it will end 2014 with around 4.6% share of the global smartphone market. That’s soft, and won’t provide enough increased unit volume to really get developers excited.

So, Microsoft needs to greatly accelerate its unit volume to at once lower the gap between it and Apple — this would greatly drive developer interest, I think — and manage to slow Android before it becomes not just the de facto mobile smartphone platform, but merely that in fact.

So while we have seen a great year for Windows Phone, its new targets will be harder to mark than BlackBerry. In fact, you could very easily make the argument that Windows Phone’s ascent is almost the result of BlackBerry’s implosion, lessening its implicit internal momentum.

It is without a doubt that this moment is the healthiest we have ever seen Windows Phone. But as we shift the perspective from which we view it from the bottom up to the top down, scale changes, and we must now treat the platform as the want-to-be big player that it now is.

Top Image Credit: Flickr