I first gave up on Windows Phone back in December 2014. Microsoft’s mobile platform was being left behind, and I was tired of not getting access to the apps everyone else was using. It took Microsoft a few years to finally admit Windows Phone is dead, and the company is no longer planning to release any new hardware running its mobile OS or update it with any features. I recently switched on an old Windows Phone to create a silly April Fools’ joke about returning to using it as my daily device, and then it hit me: I really miss Windows Phone.
Windows Phone debuted in 2010 with Microsoft’s Metro design philosophy, and a focus on glancing at your phone for information instead of digging in and out of apps. Two obvious features I miss from Windows Phone’s Metro design are the dark mode and Live Tiles. Android and iOS still don’t have system-wide dark modes, nearly 8 years after Windows Phone first introduced it. Google recently shut down the dream of that happening outside of the Pixel 2. I use my iPhone a lot in bed, and the white interface still feels like it’s lighting up the room even with Night Shift enabled.
Live Tiles were one of Windows Phone’s most unique features. They enabled apps to show information on the home screen, similar to the widgets found on Android and iOS. You could almost pin anything useful to the home screen, and Live Tiles animated beautifully to flip over and provide tiny nuggets of information that made your phone feel far more personal and alive. I’m hopeful that Apple will eventually take the Live Tiles concept, or even one that was designed for iOS 8, and bring it to the iPhone. Widgets just aren’t enough. Rumors suggest Apple is planning to refresh the iOS home screen soon, so there’s hope that iOS might move away from its static and dull home screen.
Outside of the design features, there was plenty more that showed how Microsoft was truly innovative with Windows Phone. The software keyboard is still far better than the defaults on iOS and Android, and Microsoft even added a tracing option that let you swipe to write words like many Android keyboards do now. The Windows Phone keyboard always felt accurate, at a time when Apple was struggling with its iOS autocorrect.
Microsoft also experimented with features that were different to other mobile platforms, and some of the concepts still haven’t really made their way to iOS or Android:
- Kid’s Corner – this let parents share a separate account on their device with restricted apps and games for kids.
- Dedicated search button – you could search anywhere (with Bing, hmm) in the OS, regardless of the app.
- Browser address bar – Microsoft placed its browser address bar at the bottom of the screen, making it easier to use your thumbs to navigate around.
- People hub – Microsoft’s hub concepts meant the contacts on Windows Phone could pull photos and information from social networks straight into your address book.
- Unified messaging – Microsoft’s messages hub let Windows Phone users chat via SMS or messaging apps like Skype in a single thread without needing to juggle separate apps.
One of the big reasons I still miss Windows Phone is because it pushed both Apple and Google to do better. Back when it launched, Microsoft had a good shot at creating a third mobile platform and unnerved the competition. Google refused to build Windows Phone apps, and a public feud over a YouTube app and the blocking of services on Windows Phone devices made it clear Google would do anything to stop Windows Phone.
Windows Phone has arguably changed Android and iOS, though. Microsoft aggressively pursued modern design principles at the time to launch Windows Phone with its Metro design, and Apple responded with iOS 7 and a flatter user interface. Google went one step further, with its Material Design that included bright colors, playful transitions, and a much flatter and simplified interface.
Beyond design, Windows Phone also had some fundamental principles and features that can now be found on both iOS and Android. Windows Phone focused on deep data sharing between apps, to prevent you from having to switch in and out of apps. That’s something Apple now handles through iOS App Extensions, and Android has always had its Intents system. Both have been improved to the point that Microsoft’s Windows Phone contracts vision for app data sharing has been realized beyond its own platform.
Microsoft also pushed the camera features of Windows Phone heavily, even forcing phone makers to include a dedicated camera button to take photos from the lock screen far more quickly. Both iOS and Android caught up with quick camera launch features, but at the time Windows Phone was ahead. Microsoft even added a controversial Wi-Fi Sense feature to Windows Phone that let you share Wi-Fi passwords to your contacts. The software maker scrapped it in Windows 10, but Apple introduced an identical feature in iOS 11 recently. Apple also added Live Photos to iOS 9, which is similar to an animated photo feature that was available on Nokia’s Lumia Windows Phone devices.
There are probably many more examples of Windows Phone’s influence on Android and iOS, but now that it’s dead the competition has disappeared. Google recently launched its Android Oreo Go edition for low-end phones, and it’s designed to make Android run better on phones with 512MB or 1GB of RAM. Windows Phone always worked well on a variety of hardware, but Microsoft launched low-cost devices in an identical push with just 256MB of RAM five years ago.
Samsung has also started creating its own version of Windows Phone’s Continuum concept, that turns a phone into a PC. Samsung’s system is actually superior to Continuum in a number of ways and includes windowing and popular mobile apps. Ironically, it’s looking like Continuum could play heavily in Microsoft’s potential return to a mobile device form factor. Microsoft is now focusing on software modes like Continuum for clever new hardware projects.
Windows Phone has no future, it’s over. Microsoft will continue supporting it, but with no new flagship hardware and no OS updates, it’s a forgotten and dead platform. Microsoft has been widely rumored to be working on a secret Surface notepad device with foldable dual displays. Patents have shown off hardware that looks very similar to Microsoft’s Courier concept of a digital notepad, and this could be the long-rumored “Surface Phone.” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has also previously promised that Microsoft’s future “phones” won’t look like phones at all, and this type of device fits in with that message.
The patents also show Microsoft’s mystery Surface device, codenamed “Andromeda,” adapts to become more than a notepad or a tablet, and into a laptop-like form factor. Microsoft might have one final stab at mobile with a device like this, but it won’t be the same as Windows Phone. Microsoft generated some genuine excitement around its platform with some witty marketing, unique features, and forward-looking hardware. It just wasn’t enough, despite developers trying to save Microsoft’s mobile efforts. I’ll still miss it, though.