Microsoft has helped innovate facial recognition software. Now it’s urging the US government to enact regulation to control the use of the technology.
In a blog post, Microsoft (MSFT)President Brad Smith said new laws are necessary given the technology’s „broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse.“
He urged lawmakers to form „a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission.“
Facial recognition — a computer’s ability to identify or verify people’s faces from a photo or through a camera — has been developing rapidly. Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Amazon and Microsoft are among the big tech companies developing and selling such systems. The technology is being used across a range of industries, from private businesses like hotels and casinos, to social media and law enforcement.
Supporters say facial recognition software improves safety for companies and customers and can help police track police down criminals or find missing children. Civil rights groups warn it can infringe on privacy and allow for illegal surveillance and monitoring. There is also room for error, they argue, since the still-emerging technology can result in false identifications.
The accuracy of facial recognition technologies varies, with women and people of color being identified with less accuracy, according to MIT research.
„Facial recognition raises a critical question: what role do we want this type of technology to play in everyday society?“ Smith wrote on Friday.
Smith’s call for a regulatory framework to control the technology comes as tech companies face criticism over how they’ve handled and shared customer data, as well as their cooperation with government agencies.
Last month, Microsoft was scrutinized for its working relationship with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE had been enforcing the Trump administration’s „zero tolerance“ immigration policy that separated children from their parents when they crossed the US border illegally. The administration has since abandoned the policy.
Microsoft wrote a blog post in January about ICE’s use of its cloud technology Azure, saying it could help it „accelerate facial recognition and identification.“
After questions arose about whether Microsoft’s technology had been used by ICE agents to carry out the controversial border separations, the company released a statement calling the policy „cruel“ and „abusive.“
In his post, Smith reiterated Microsoft’s opposition to the policy and said he had confirmed its contract with ICE does not include facial recognition technology.
Amazon(AMZN) has also come under fire from its own shareholders and civil rights groups over local police forces using its face identifying software Rekognition, which can identify up to 100 people in a single photo.
Some Amazon shareholders coauthored a letter pressuring Amazon to stop selling the technology to the government, saying it was aiding in mass surveillance and posed a threat to privacy rights.
And Facebook (FB) is embroiled in a class-action lawsuit that alleges the social media giant used facial recognition on photos without user permission. Its facial recognition tool scans your photos and suggests you tag friends.
Neither Amazon nor Facebook immediately responded to a request for comment about Smith’s call for new regulations on face ID technology.
Smith said companies have a responsibility to police their own innovations, control how they are deployed and ensure that they are used in a „a manner consistent with broadly held societal values.“
„It may seem unusual for a company to ask for government regulation of its products, but there are many markets where thoughtful regulation contributes to a healthier dynamic for consumers and producers alike,“ he said.
All the cool companies have them: digital assistants. Applehas Siri, Microsofthas Cortana, and Google has the cleverly named Google Assistant. Now, Samsung plans to bring its own iteration of a virtual assistant in the Galaxy S8 next spring, according to a new report from Reuters.
The assistant will be based on work by Viv Labs, a San Jose-based AI company that Samsung acquired this October (the move immediately fueled speculation that Samsung was moving into the AI space). The founders of Viv Labs already have a strong track record in the field as the creators of Siri, which Apple bought in 2010.
Samsung appears to be tapping into Viv’s existing strengths rather than aiming to revamp the platform. One of Viv’s hallmarks is that it is designed to be a one-stop-shop that works seamlessly with third-party services. “Developers can attach and upload services to our agent,” Samsung Executive Vice President Rhee In-jong said during a briefing, according to Reuters. “Even if Samsung doesn’t do anything on its own, the more services that get attached the smarter this agent will get, learn more new services and provide them to end-users with ease.”
But the company is entering a crowded market. Apple paved the way with Siri, though its early lead is shrinking after the launch of Google’s Assistant, which can tap into Google’s well-established knowledge graph and search capabilities. And there’s always Amazon Alexa, which already has a home in the smart-home devices the Echo, Dot and Tap.
At the close of trading this Monday, the top five global companies by market capitalization were all U.S. tech companies: Apple, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.
Bloomberg, which reported on the apparent milestone, insisted that this “tech sweep” is unprecedented, even during the dot-com boom. Back in 2011, for example, Exxon and Shell held two of the top spots, and Apple was the only tech company in the top five. In 2006, Microsoft held the only slot—the others were in energy, banking, and manufacture. But things have changed. “Your new tech overlords,” Bloomberg christened the five.
But what makes a company a technology company, anyway? In their discussion of overlords, Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide and Rani Molla explain that “Non-tech titans like Exxon and GE have slipped a bit” in top valuations. Think about that claim for a minute, and reflect on its absurdity: Exxon uses enormous machinery to extract the remains of living creatures from geological antiquity from deep beneath the earth. Then it uses other enormous machinery to refine and distribute that material globally. For its part, GE makes almost everything—from light bulbs to medical imaging devices to wind turbines to locomotives to jet engines.
Isn’t it strange to call Facebook, a company that makes websites and mobile apps a “technology” company, but to deny that moniker to firms that make diesel trains, oil-drilling platforms, and airplane engines?
Part of the problem has to do with the private language of finance. Markets segment companies by industry, and analysts track specific sectors and subsectors. Exxon is an energy industry stock, while GE straddles energy, transportation, public utility, healthcare, and finance. The “technology” in the technology sector is really synecdoche for “computer technology.” Companies in that sector deal in software, semiconductors, hardware manufacturing, peripherals, data processing services, digital advertising, and so forth.
“Technology” has become so overused … that the term has lost all meaning.
For the NASDAQ exchange, where most so-called technology companies are traded, those industries are based on the Industry Classification Benchmark (ICB), a classification system developed by the London Stock Exchange’s FTSE Group. The ICB breaks the market down into 10 industries, each of which is broken down further into supersectors, sectors, and subsectors. The ICB technology industry counts “Internet” as a subsector of “Software & Computer Services,” for example. Companies are assigned to sectors and subsectors based on the (largest) source of their revenue (thus, GE is considered an energy company).
A company like Microsoft fits squarely into Technology, Software & Computer Services, because that’s where the majority of its revenue derives. Likewise, Apple is a traditional ICB “technology” company, in the sense that it makes most of its money from selling computer hardware. But the other companies in Bloomberg’s Monday top five are technology companies in a mostly vestigial way.
Almost all of Google’s and Facebook’s revenue, for example, comes from advertising; by that measure, there’s an argument that those firms are really Media industry companies, with a focus on Broadcasting and Entertainment. Of course, Alphabet is a lot like GE, or at least it aspires to be, with its investments in automotive (Self-Driving Car Project), health care (Calico), consumer goods (Nest), utilities (Fiber). But the vast majority of its revenue comes from Google’s ad business.
Amazon generates a lot of revenue from its Amazon Web Services (AWS) business—perhaps as much as $10 billion this year. It also derives revenue from manufacturing and selling computer hardware, like the Fire and Kindle. But thevast majority of Amazon’s revenue comes from international sales of consumer goods. Amazon is sort of a tech company, but really it’s a retailer.
A day later, at the close of the markets Tuesday, August 2, the tech sweep was already history. Exxon Mobil had pushed Facebook out of position five, topping the, uh, online broadcast media company’s $352 billion market cap by $8 billion, or 2 percent. Warren Buffett’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway also closed Tuesday at $354 billion in total value. Among Berkshire Hathaway’s top revenue drivers are insurance, manufacturing, and the obscure but ubiquitous McClane Company, which provides supply-chain management and logistics services for the grocery industry. It brought in $28 billion in revenue last year, or about $10 billion more than Facebook. Johnson & Johnson, which sells consumer and industrial health products from Actifed to Zyrtec, wasn’t far behind, with a $345 billion market capitalization at the close of business Tuesday.
Every industry uses computers, software, and internet services. If that’s what “technology” means, then every company is in the technology business—a useless distinction. But it’s more likely that “technology” has become so overused, and so carelessly associated with Silicon Valley-style computer software and hardware startups, that the term has lost all meaning. Perhaps finance has exacerbated the problem by insisting on the generic industrial term “technology” as a synonym for computing.
There are companies that are firmly planted in the computing sector. Microsoft and Apple are two. Intel is another—it makes computer parts for other computer makers. But it’s also time to recognize that some companies—Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook among them—aren’t primarily in the computing business anyway. And that’s no slight, either. The most interesting thing about companies like Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook is that they are not (computing) technology companies. Instead, they are using computing infrastructure to build new—and enormous—businesses in other sectors. If anything, that’s a fair take on what “technology” might mean as a generic term: manipulating one set of basic materials to realize goals that exceed those materials.
Despite what science-fiction wisdom says, talking to your computer is not normal. Sitting in the middle of a modern, open floor-plan office and saying „Hello, Computer,“ will garner some head-turns and a few scowls.
No matter. Companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are convinced we want to talk to everything, including our desktop and laptop computers. Side-eye looks be damned.
Which brings us to today. Almost a year since Microsoft brought Cortana to Windows 10, Apple is following suit with Siri for the newly rechristened macOS.
Windows 10 with Cortana is, obviously, a shipping product, while macOS with Siri integration is in early beta. Even so, I can’t look at Siri’s first desktop jaunt in a vacuum, so when Apple supplied me with a MacBook running the beta of macOS Sierra (due to come to consumers in the fall), I compared the two desktop-based voice assistants. As you might surmise, they’re quite similar, but they have significant and strategic differences.
Where did they come from?
Siri arrives on the desktop as the oldest of the growing class of digital assistants, appearing first on the iPhone 4S in 2011. It’s long been rumored that it would eventually come to the Mac, so no one was surprised when Apple announced exactly that earlier this month at its Worldwide Developers Conference.
Cortana (which was named for the synthetic intelligence in Microsoft’s popular Halo game series), arrived with Windows 10 in 2015, a year after the digital assistant’s formal introduction on Windows Phone at the 2014 Microsoft Build conference.
Like Cortana, Siri has a permanent place on the macOS desktop. Actually, it has two. A tiny icon in the upper right corner and then another in the macOS dock. Both launch the familiar Siri „waiting to help you“ wave.
On Windows, Cortana sits next to the Start Button. it has a circular halo icon and, next to that, the ever-present „Ask me anything.“
It’s at this point that the two assistants diverge. Cortana is a voice assistant, but, by default, it’s a text-driven one. Most people who use it will type something into the Cortana box. If you want to speak to Cortana — as I did many times for this article — you have to click the little microphone icon icon on the right side of the Cortana box.
While Cortana combines universal search with the digital assistant, Apple’s Siri drawn a line between the two.
Importantly, you can put Cortana in an always-listening mode, so it (she?) will wake when you say „Hey Cortana.“ Even though you can also wake the mobile Siri with „Hey Siri,“ macOS offers no such always-listening feature. For the purposes of this comparison, I left „Hey Cortana“ off.
Siri is a voice assistant. It has no text box. A click on either Siri icon opens the same black box in the upper right-hand side of the macOS desktop (it actually slides in from offscreen — a nice touch). As soon as you hit that button, Siri is listening, waiting for you to ask a question.
Sitting right next to Siri is Spotlight, which last year got a significant update. It’s a universal search that can pore over you Mac, the Web, iTunes, the App Store, maps.
So while Microsoft’s Cortana combines universal search with the digital assistant, Apple’s drawn a line between the two — sort of. Spotlight can perform many of the same searches as Siri. However, if you type a question into Spotlight, it may launch Siri. A trigger word appears to be „What’s.“
I really don’t know why Apple chose to keep Spotlight and Siri separate, but they may reconsider in future versions of macOS.
Battle of the assistants
It’s early days for Siri on the desktop, but I’m already impressed with its performance and intelligence — especially as it compares to Microsoft’s Cortana.
To test the two voice assistants, I first closed my office door. I wanted to speak in a normal voice and didn’t want to attract any annoyed stares.
Both Siri on macOS and Cortana start by asking you to open up your privacy settings a bit. They simply do their jobs better if they know where you are. So I followed Siri’s instructions and turned on location services on the macOS.
Here’s something else Siri on macOS and Cortana have in common: Both can tap into your system to, for example, find files and make system-level adjustments, but they’re both pretty inconsistent. Siri on macOS, obviously, is still a work in progress, so take these criticisms with a grain of salt. Even so, I suspect that there will, at least for some time, be limits to what Siri can do even after the forma macOS launch, especially as long as Spotlight survives.
When I asked Siri to „increase my screen brightness,“ it opened a System Preferences: Brightness slider box within Siri and told me „I made the screen a little brighter.“
When I asked Cortana the same question, it opened a Bing search result inside the Cortana box, which told me how to adjust screen brightness, but didn’t do it for me.
On the other hand, when I told Cortana to turn off my Wi-Fi, it turned it off, it returned a message of „Wi-Fi is now off“ and showed the setting to confirm.
Siri can turn off Wi-Fi, too, but doing so also renders Siri for macOS useless. Unlike Cortana, it needs an Internet connection to work, which means once Siri on macOS has turned it off, you can’t use it to turn Wi-Fi back on. Even if you turn off network connectivity, Cortana will still be able to search your system.
Siri and Cortana excel at natural-language queries (asking questions in sentences), but Siri comes across as the smarter system.
It’s easy to check your schedule through both systems — you just need to ask one of them about your next appointment. However, Siri goes a big step further.
When I asked it about my next appointment, it showed me one for Thursday at 11:00 a.m. I then clicked the microphone icon below the calendar result and asked Siri, „Can you move that to 11:10.“ Siri responded, „Okay, I’ll make that change to your event. Shall I reschedule it?“ It then offered the option of confirming the change or cancelling it with my voice. Siri on macOS actually maintains the context between queries — that feels more like the future.
When I asked Cortana to make a similar change, it sent me to a Bing search result. (By the way, both voice assistants use Bing and neither will let you change it to Google.)
The level of conversational prowess in Siri could be a real game-changer and certainly puts Microsoft on notice.
Cortana and Siri on macOS both boast system access, but Siri does a better job of keeping track of system specs. I can ask about the speed of my system and how much iCloud storage I have left in Siri. Cortana, unfortunately, has no clue about my OneDrive storage and when I asked „How fast is my PC?“ I only got a Bing search result.
Where’s my stuff and who are you
Siri and Cortana each do a good job of finding system files that contain a keyword. For both, I asked, „Find me files with [keyword],“ and they both quickly showed me local, relevant results. Siri, however, excels at making results persistent. You can pin whatever you find to the notification center.
Similarly, both voice assistants do a good job of finding images, but only Siri on macOS lets me drag and drop one of the image results into a document or email. When I tried to do the same thing with a Cortana result, it only dragged and dropped the HTML for the original query.
Siri did struggle with contacts. I tried initiating a text and got stuck in a sort of infinite loop — it just kept going back to asking me which of my duplicate contacts I wanted to text. This felt like a pre-release bug.
No winners yet
Since Apple is still working Siri for macOS, it’s way too soon to crown a voice-assistant champion. Even so, Siri on mac OS is already faster (Cortana’s voice recognition seems plodding by comparison) and it’s already outstripping Cortana on the intelligence front. On the other hand, Cortana truly shines when you can type into it, a feat impossible in Siri for macOS, unless you start in Spotlight and use one of the magic words to auto-launch Siri.
Microsoft, of course, has its own big Cortana update in the wings as part of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update due later this summer. It will increase Cortana’s intelligence and utility (order plane tickets, shop), but based on what I’ve seen in Siri for macOS, it may only help Cortana achieve parity on some features, while still leaving it trailing in others.
Today, Google announced Daydream, a new initiative designed to make virtual reality cheaper and more accessible to everybody, in partnership with vendors Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei, Alcatel, ZTE, Xiaomi and Asus.
And assuming that virtual reality really does take off and become the next great computing paradigm, like the tech industry thinks it will, it looks like history is going to repeat itself — with Google in the role of Microsoft and Facebook playing the part of Apple.
This is not necessarily a good thing.
The Apple II wasn’t the first computer, by any measure. But when it launched in 1977, the whole idea of personal computing was nothing more than a hobbyist’s pastime. In fact, the Apple I was a do-it-yourself computer kit.
The big breakthrough of the Apple II was taking all of the complicated techie stuff and placing it in one pre-built box so anybody could use it and build software for it. It was so successful and influential that it kicked off a product line that lasted through the Apple IIe in 1993.
Still, Microsoft saw opportunity. While the Apple II and, later, the Apple Macinstosh were popular, they were also prohibitively expensive for most people. With Apple the sole manufacturer of those computers, there was no reason to ever drop the price. So Microsoft performed an end-run and circumvented Apple entirely.
Microsoft sold Windows to any and every PC manufacturer, building a thriving ecosystem of computers from different companies that nonetheless offered compatible software. PC prices cratered, PC manufacturers blossomed, Microsoft’s stock went way up, and Apple’s future became far less certain.
It’s basically the same thing that Google would go on to do with Android itself, making the mobile operating system available for free to phone manufacturers. Now, you can get an Android phone that costs less than $100 or more than $700, your choice. Google now wants to repeat the trick, this time with virtual reality.
Just like Apple before it, Facebook is maintaining a tight grip over Oculus, and its flagship Oculus Rift VR headset, which it bought for $2 billion in 2014.
Because of that, it carries the same pluses and minuses as the Apple II and Macintosh before it. It’s engineered to Just Work, streamlining away all the things that made virtual reality never catch on before. But it’s also expensive, with $599 for the Oculus Rift headset alone, plus the fact that you’ll need a $1,200-ish PC just to use it.
Google’s vision for the future of virtual reality is a little broader. Its first-ever virtual reality play was the $20-ish Google Cardboard, literally a cardboard box that you can slot just about any smartphone into.
Much like Microsoft with Windows. Google has turned to partners to realize the dream of Daydream. It’s providing a blueprint for a virtual reality headset that anybody can build from, and a specification for building phones that are compatible with it.
Oculus VROculus Rift
There are some limits — Daydream is only going to work with certain, pre-certified new phones — but the general idea is that it’s always going to be cheaper and more accessible to power virtual reality with a smartphone that you probably already own, than an expensive gaming PC that only true power-users care to maintain.
Facebook, for its part, hasn’t ignored this trend. The Samsung Gear VR, co-developed by Oculus, is a lower-end headset also powered by a phone. Still, it only works with Samsung’s own Galaxy phones, which are always on the higher end of the price spectrum.
Google Daydream is, on paper, more inclusive of lower-end and cheaper smartphones. It may never be as powerful as the Oculus Rift, but if it works, it’ll ignite an explosion of cheap VR from every manufacturer, making it a new standard, at the cost of some overall control.
Just like Windows.
Vision for the future
So you have Facebook’s Oculus at the Apple-esque high end of virtual reality, and Google Daydream at the low-to-middle that’s long been Microsoft’s forte in PCs.
That’s great, except not really. If the long decades of Apple’s history with Microsoft have taught us anything, it’s that consumers suffer the most when tech giants have turf wars. Remember the dark days of the great Windows/Mac divide?
Right now, virtual reality is such a young market that these companies don’t feel the need to compete.
GoogleThe current design for the Google Daydream headset.
But you already can’t legitimately get Google’s YouTube app on Facebook’s Oculus Home virtual reality operating system. If virtual reality takes off, expect to see a lot more territorialism between Facebook’s growing ecosystem of apps and services, and Google’s established base.
Eventually, Apple and Microsoft came to terms. Microsoft builds some of the best iPhone apps around; Apple promotes Office on its iPad Pro tablet.
To get to that happier place, though, it took a strange journey, and a long maturation of the overall technology behind computing and the internet. We’re just at the beginning of even glimpsing the potential of virtual reality. And if Google and Facebook really follow history, we’re in for a long, tough, bitter fight.
But why? Entertaining though these apps are, they all seemed a little random—until a couple of weeks ago at Build 2016, when Microsoft revealed that these experiments are more than just a sum of their parts. In fact, they represent stepping stones on the road leading to Seeing AI, an augmented-reality project for the visually impaired that aims to give the blind the next best thing to sight: information.
Built by Microsoft Research, Seeing AI is an app that lives either on smartphones or Pivothead-brand smart glasses. It takes all of the tricks Microsoft developed using those „goofy“ machine learning apps and combines them into a digital Swiss Army knife for the blind. By helping the visually impaired user line up and snap a photograph using their device, the app can tell them what they’re „looking“ at; it can read menus or signs, tell you how old the person you’re talking to is, or even describe what’s happening right in front of you—say, that you’re in a park, watching a golden retriever catch an orange frisbee. Presumably, it has some excellent mustache detection skills, too.
„This isn’t the first app for the blind,“ admits project lead Anirudh Koul. „But those apps are extremely limited.“ One app might be dedicated just to helping you know what color you’re looking at. Another might read menus and signs, or tell you what box you’re holding in the grocery store based on the barcode. There are even photography apps for the blind.
But the problem with all these apps is fragmentation. For a blind person, using them seamlessly is like having to screw in a different set of eyes every time you want to read a paper or identify a color. Seeing AI can do all of the above—and more—all within the same app.
Of course, having so much functionality introduces its own design challenges. According to Margaret Mitchell, Seeing AI’s vision-to-language guru, context is key when trying to decode visual information to text. „If you’re outside, for example, you don’t want it to describe the grass as a green carpet anymore than you want it to describe a blue ceiling as a clear sky when you’re indoors,“ she says. It’s also challenging to know how much information Seeing AI should give users at any given moment. Sometimes, it might be more useful to list what’s around a user, while other times, a scene-description is better, so knowing when to automatically switch between modes becomes important.
These are just some of the problems the Seeing AI team is trying to work out before their software becomes a consumer-facing product. But already, Seeing AI’s software is proving indispensable to Microsoft software engineer Saqib Shaikh, who lost his sight at the age of seven. He has helped the Seeing AI team test and tweak its software, as well as identify features that sighted people might not think of as useful, but which the visually impaired really need. For example: finding an empty seat in a restaurant. „His guidance has been amazing,“ says Mitchell. „He can exactly identify what we should be returning and why.“
Although apps that use its machine-learning algorithms are routinely released by Microsoft Garage, neither Koul nor Mitchell could say when Seeing AI would be available for everyone to download. They only say it is a „research project under development.“ But this isn’t just some silly web toy. When released, Seeing AI will be an app that can fundamentally change a person’s life, while continuing the grand tradition of accessibility pushing design forward in exciting directions.
With Wednesday’s layoffs, Microsoft, saddled with the losing mobile hand that is Windows Phone, has essentially folded. The bulk of the 7,800 people let go are from the company’s phone division, a tacit admission that its big plans for Windows Phone haven’t exactly worked out.
The company’s not leaving the casino, though: Windows Phone, the platform, isn’t going anywhere, even as Microsoft greatly scales back its hardware ambitions. The company has labored for years to create both a full-featured mobile operating system as well as an ecosystem of devices — PC, phone, tablet and more — that all use the same code base. It would be silly to just abandon its mobile platform, especially as people spend more and more of their time on smartphones.
In fact, if you’re not one of the 7,800 people losing their jobs, there’s actually a lot to like in Satya Nadella’s explanation: Microsoft will continue to build Windows Lumia handsets, but only three types: flagships, business-focused enterprise phones and low-end budget devices.
They’re retreating from being a mainstream player
They’re retreating from being a mainstream player,“ says Martin Reynolds, vice president at Gartner Research. „They’ll continue to bring products to market, but not particularly aggressively.“The move represents a clear refocusing, putting Microsoft’s phones in the arenas where they might actually score a few punches before Android and the iPhone walk away with all the market share. It also rightly ditches the current strategy of offering several different Lumias, each with region-specific models, which led to a muddled brand and a confusing market strategy message to consumers.
Even without the model shake-up, trimming the fat on the handset business Microsoft acquired from Nokia was probably inevitable. With a few exceptions (hello, curved screens), smartphone design and technology have more or less plateaued — it’s no coincidence that both iOS and Android have essentially taken a „bye“ in 2015, with few feature updates. Big hardware teams aren’t really needed to build good smartphones in 2015, as illustrated by upstart Chinese companies like Xiaomi and OnePlus.
„Things have changed in the last few years,“ says Reynolds. „You don’t have [to be a] big company to run a small phone business. They certainly don’t need the design teams and manufacturing people going forward.“
Still, there are new Lumias — and certainly a new flagship — coming soon. A couple of months after Windows 10 debuts, Windows 10 for phones will arrive, and, as Nadella suggested in his letter to employees, those phones will emphasize the big differentiators in the Windows ecosystem. Commentators like Daniel Rubino at Windows Central almost have you believing that a leaner-and-meaner Microsoft mobile division will be poised to succeed, albeit with lowered expectations, once Windows 10 is fully formed.
Let me get this straight, Microsoft *finally* focusing on enterprise for Windows Phone is a bad thing? Should have happened 4 years ago.
That point of view overlooks the crux of the matter: Windows Phone’s fate was never in the hands of Microsoft. What the company does in mobile at this point is virtually irrelevant. It designed a beautiful (and influential!) user interface, offered sweeter deals to developers than competitors, and helped engineer some of the most sophisticated cameras ever seen on mobile.
None of it mattered. Developers and consumers didn’t respond, locked in a deadly catch-22: If the apps weren’t there, consumers wouldn’t buy the phones; if there weren’t enough people on the platform, developers wouldn’t bother creating apps.
„Windows Phone is not even a blip on [developers‘] radar,“ says Richard Hay, a longtime Microsoft observer and contributor to SuperSite for Windows. „They’re not going to start flocking to it, because what’s the draw? You’re still going to have the app gap.“
The „app gap“ ultimately dug Windows Phone’s grave, and even though it’s only got one foot in it, today’s news will be widely perceived as an admission that the other will soon follow. If there were other Windows Phone manufacturers, it might be a different story, but Microsoft makes 97% of the Windows Phones being sold, according to Ad Duplex. If they’re scaling back, who’s going to step up?
Windows 10 and mobile
If there’s a way Microsoft can resuscitate Windows Phone, it’s with Windows 10. Its ecosystem strategy doesn’t depend on it, but with the new OS, Windows Phones will be more connected to the platform than before, sharing all the same code and development tools.
„The universal Windows platform helps,“ says Hay. „Will that persuade developers to develop for handsets and smaller tablets? Is it enough to come back from the edge? i’m just not sure it is.“
That means Windows developers will be able to create Windows Phone versions of their apps with minimal effort, and some of Windows Phone’s key differentiators, like Cortana, will get a chance to shine on PCs, which could ultimately have a positive impact on the platform.
Finally, there’s Continuum — the feature that allows Windows apps to adapt from PC to tablet to phone seamlessly and lets a Windows Phone theoretically act as your PC when it’s plugged into an external screen. And although there will always be performance concerns when trying to do PC with a mobile processor, it’s a pretty cool trick.
Continuum, though, has only the slimmest chance of being the ace in the hole that wins the day — any day — for Windows Phone. Even for enterprise customers, it’s hard to picture any of Windows 10’s differentiators winning over users, especially now that we’re firmly in a BYOD and single-device world.
Even if Continuum ends up being an X factor, who’s left to give Windows Phones a chance?
Even if Continuum ends up being an X factor, who’s left to give Windows Phones a chance? Microsoft is certainly hoping today’s belt-tightening and the Windows 10 launch will lead to some kind of success in mobile, albeit on redefined terms. But it’s not acting in a vacuum. Today’s retreat — or rather the perception of it — may have sealed Windows Phone’s fate. Who would believe the recommendation of a Windows handset after today?Without those new users, developers will have even less incentive to create apps. And without those experiences, Windows Phone will be even more of shell than it is now. What then?
It’s admirable that Microsoft is taking painful steps to preserve what it’s built, but it’s hard not to see its Windows Phone restructuring as delaying the inevitable. Yes, by reducing its ambitions, it’s no longer losing on big bets. But in mobile, there really isn’t a low-stakes table.