Microsoft looks to iOS and Android for its path forward in mobile

Between the release of Windows 10 Fall Creators Edition and the announcement of a new Surface Book, today’s Microsoft news was firmly focused on the desktop. But as the company works to build its future ecosystem, it’s keenly aware that no play in the space is complete without a mobile strategy. What shape that strategy will take, however, has been pretty unclear in the wake of Windows Phone’s long, drawn-out death.

Earlier this month, the company appeared to pronounce its proprietary mobile platform dead for good, as one time Windows Phone proselytizer Joe Belfiore threw in the towel on Twitter, declaring that “building new features/hardware aren’t the focus” after years of trying and trying again to make a vertically integrated, Windows-based smartphone business model work.

In a conversation with TechCrunch to mark the launch of today’s news, Microsoft Windows and Devices Group EVP Terry Myerson shed more light on Microsoft’s way forward in mobile.

“Our customers are using phones with their PCs,” the executive explained. “They can start on their phones and continue on their PCs or consoles. We are focusing on scenarios with the phones people are using today […] end to end scenarios to get stuff done to participate in the gaming experience.”

Myerson would not reveal more about the company’s strategy beyond that — “I don’t want to answer more specifically,” he said when pressed — but it’s easy to begin connecting the dots of Microsoft’s new mobile road map.

Along with this morning’s new Windows 10 release, the software giant is releasing versions of its Edge browser for both iOS and Android — a tacit acknowledgement that the company needs to embrace the leading mobile operating systems in order to maintain relevance on the desktop.

With the quiet admission that Microsoft-branded smartphones are taking a back seat (or maybe more accurately, being left on the side of the road), Edge is shaping up to be more than just a simple browser for the company.

Taking a cue from the Google’s playbook, the app is a lightweight, but robust cross platform offering that also brings things like a reading mode and Cortana to the table. The new Creators Update also introduced additional Microsoft Pen compatibility for the desktop version, letting users take notes on e-books.

Speaking of Cortana, the company’s assistant will also be a key part of its mobile play moving forward. Microsoft has already released versions of the AI assistant for iOS and Android, as it attempts to give it a life outside of the desktop. That’s also seeing Microsoft work with third parties a la Amazon with Alexa to figure out what kind of mileage it could have on voice-powered devices, as with Harman’s new Cortana-powered smart speaker, and HP’s and Intel’s plans to build Cortana-powered devices.

As Surface head Panos Panay told us, “As I move from device to device and room to room, you have to make sure that they’re all connected through Cortana. We believe in that.”

Both Edge and Cortana are key pieces of this puzzle, providing key connective tissue that Windows users will almost certainly want to take with them on the go. With Windows Phone out of the equation, that will almost certainly mean syncing up increasingly with iOS and Android to make sure that Windows itself continues to stay relevant.

It’s something of a Plan B for the company. Clearly Microsoft would have preferred more control over its own mobile ecosystem (and even acquired Nokia to establish a hardware foothold), but for now, it’s going to have to rely on Google and Apple’s offerings. Not ideal, but the company has been producing software for competing platforms from its earliest days. Survival in the age of mobile means re-embracing those roots.