Microsoft is making the right move by offering OS updates more frequently. But that may not be enough in the competitive smartphone race.
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Less than five months have passed since Microsoft debuted Windows Phone 8, so it might come as a surprise that Redmond already is quietly counting down toward the mobile OS's retirement. According to a recently published support page, Windows Phone 8's active lifecycle will expire on July 8, 2014. The page also reveals that Windows Phone 7.8 will lose support shortly thereafter, on Sept. 9.
Windows 7.8 was released to bring some of Windows 8's features to Windows 7 hardware, which is not compatible with the new OS. Don't infer from this precedent that Windows 8 users will be likewise locked out of updates once Microsoft terminates support, though -- Microsoft already has confirmed Windows 8 will have an upgrade plan. Nevertheless, Microsoft's mobility strategy points to other challenges, notably the company's ability to drive enthusiasm among developers.
To avid Windows followers, the support deadlines might actually be later than expected. Microsoft officials said last June at the company's Windows Phone Summit that users could expect at least 18 months of support, and both Windows Phone 8 and 7.8 will have slightly outlived that span by the time they're put down.
The 18-month support window should ultimately benefit users. It's intended to support a cycle of regular OS enhancements in the mold of Apple's iOS refreshes. More frequent updates should yield not only cheaper upgrades but also quicker access to new features.
What's more, a Feb. 27 Microsoft job posting for a software engineer suggests that a new Windows Phone release will arrive by the holidays. Whether this release will be an update to version 8 or a new edition, perhaps the much-rumored Windows Blue, is open to speculation. But if Microsoft plans to deliver a new release within the year, it's possible most users will have upgraded platforms long before Windows 8 support expires.
Additionally, a leaked Nokia document suggests Windows Phone 7 upgrades are still on the roadmap, meaning that Microsoft isn't arm-twisting customers into buying new models. Support for certain features might demand hardware upgrades, of course, but that reality is the same for Windows Phone users as it is for Android and iPhone users. And given that many consumers upgrade to a new phone every other year, or as often as their subscription contracts allow, many are already accustomed to regular smartphone purchases.
In short, with its new update cycle, Microsoft has done more to encourage its smartphone users than to worry them.
These challenges are compounded by Microsoft's purportedly delicate relationship with several OEMs. Samsung clearly aspires to conquer the smartphone world and has been critical of Microsoft's newest platforms, leading to conspiracy theories that the South Korean giant is making Windows devices to help hasten their demise. Meanwhile, a recent SEC filing by Nokia, Microsoft's most valuable smartphone partner, suggests the Finnish phone maker hasn't taken kindly to the prospect of a Surface-branded handset.
Microsoft still has time to navigate these challenges, and to compete for the third position in the smartphone race. To do so, though, there is one group whose support it undeniably needs: developers.
Windows Phone 8 already offers a differentiated experience thanks to its tile-based interface and features such as Kids Corner, which lets children play with the device without affecting their parents' content. It also continues to refine base features, such as a recent Skype update that includes 720p HD chat support.
Mobile operating systems rise and fall on the strength of their apps, though, and Microsoft's platform undeniably trails iOS and Android in this regard. If the end of Windows 8 support means that developers will be required to learn an entirely new process, Microsoft could be in for trouble.
It's unlikely, however, that future Windows Phone releases will have a negative effect on developer interest. Windows Phone 8 runs on the same kernel as the full Windows 8 OS, and Windows Blue rumors have suggested Microsoft plans to more closely align its various Windows platforms, enabling programmers to offer desktop, smartphone and tablet versions of an app without substantially rewriting code. If Microsoft follows through on these rumors, development should get easier, not harder.
It will still be up to programmers to come up with delightful experiences, and for Microsoft to provide them the guidance to do so. The smartphone market is relatively mature, so Windows 8 will need to be compelling and unique, rather than merely competitive, if it is to make strides. That's no small task. Nevertheless, if Microsoft can motivate developers, there's a much better chance its other obstacles will take care of themselves.
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