From 'Windows Phone' to 'Windows 10': Can name change get consumers to notice?

The "Windows Phone" OS will be no more, as the version of Windows 10 tailored for smaller devices will be called simply Windows 10. Will that help improve Microsoft's lot in the smartphone market?

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Roger Cheng
5 min read

When it comes to Windows Phone, Microsoft is hoping less is more.

Microsoft VP Joe Belfiore runs through a demo of Windows 10 on a smartphone. Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

The less, in this instance, is the "Phone" bit of the Windows Phone name. Microsoft confirmed that it plans to drop "Windows Phone" in favor of the name of its next-generation operating system, Windows 10.

By dropping the Windows Phone distinction and going with Windows 10, Microsoft wants to reinforce the idea that all its devices -- no matter what shape or size -- will run on a single platform. The company thinks this family approach will be critical to driving consumer awareness and interest for Windows-powered products, particularly on the mobile end, where Microsoft lags far behind larger rivals Google and Apple.

It couldn't hurt. Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system held a paltry 2.9 percent of the market in the third quarter of 2014, according to IDC. In comparison, Android dominated with 84 percent of the market, and Apple was second with a nearly 12 percent slice.

"I think using the Windows 10 name is the right move," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar Worldpanel. "It is one Windows with one experience that adapts to the format but remains consistent."

The world's first peek at Windows 10 on a Windows phone. Nate Ralph/CNET

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"It's designed to go with your PC as a great companion," said Joe Belfiore, vice president of the operating systems group.

Despite improvements and new features coming to smartphones with Windows 10, broader problems still plague Windows Phone. Its breadth of apps, though steadily improving, still lags behind that of Google's Android and Apple's iOS, with developers hesitant to invest in the platform. Aside from the former Nokia mobile-devices division, now part of Microsoft, support from the handset manufacturers is minimal. The smartphones that do run on Windows Phone suffer from limited distribution and visibility in stores.

Raising the awareness level of a phone-centric Windows 10 might go a long way toward solving those problems. Milanesi said that Microsoft's strategy of pushing Windows services in PCs and desktops could eventually have people looking at smartphones too.

"We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to living Windows," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at the event.

Banking on the wrong OS

Does this one-Windows strategy sound familiar? It's similar to a tactic employed by Microsoft around the launch of Windows Phone 8 in October 2012. That was supposed to be the start of the company's big push in mobile. Microsoft planned a large marketing effort around the Windows family of devices, from PCs running on Windows 8 down to smartphones using Windows Phone 8.

The company even had a flagship smartphone lined up: Nokia's Lumia 1020 , which won critical praise for its 41-megapixel camera when it debuted in July 2013. Exclusive US carrier AT&T promised that the 1020 would be its marquee product for the back-to-school season.

The problem was that few people liked Windows 8. Microsoft's decision to focus on a touch-friendly user interface that centered on active tiles turned consumers off, and any planned "halo" effect from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8 -- which also utilized the same tile system -- fizzled before it began.

As of December, only 13.5 percent of desktops use Windows 8 or Windows 8.1. A majority of PCs -- 56.3 percent -- still employ Windows 7, according to Net Applications, which tracks activity through analyzing the browser hits of specific websites.

The cool reception to Windows 8 meant there would be no boost to the perception of Windows Phone, even after a major update in 2014 that included the introduction of a virtual assistant, Cortana. Furthermore, it was unclear what the distinctions were between the phone, tablet and desktop.

"Windows 10 will help with both apps and awareness, which is what we had hoped Windows 8 would do but never materialized," said Milanesi.

It's no surprise that even longtime Microsoft partners like HTC have shifted resources away from creating devices specifically for Windows Phone. The handset manufacturer instead came out with a version of its HTC One M8 smartphone running on Microsoft's operating system -- five months after the debut of the original.

Switching gears to the low end

The one area where Windows Phone has had success has been with its more affordable smartphones. Microsoft pressed its low-end advantage further at its Build developer conference last April by eliminating licensing fees for devices under 9 inches in screen size and by working with device manufacturers on reference designs for cheaper phones.

It's clear why Microsoft is doing this: the company is going after the fastest-growing segment of the smartphone market. Last week Microsoft unveiled two new low-cost phones, the Lumia 532 and the Lumia 435, as it looks to tackle the emerging markets.

The Lumia 532 offers a lot of colorful options at a low price. Microsoft

But the company's efforts in this area haven't really helped. After a few years of growth, the platform began to ebb in 2014. Its third-quarter share of 2.9 percent actually fell from a year ago, when it held 3.6 percent of the market, according to IDC.

Furthermore, by focusing on less-flashy devices, Microsoft hasn't had a genuine flagship Windows Phone product. The last true smartphone to launch with a splash was the Lumia 1020.

Microsoft could be waiting for Windows 10 to officially launch before going big with a flagship device. The company has said it intends to compete in both the high and low end of the market with a complete portfolio of products.

"We are a portfolio company," Jo Harlow, vice president of phones at Microsoft, said in an interview earlier this month. "We were one at Nokia, and we continue to be one at Microsoft."

She declined to provide specifics.

Fresh start with Windows 10

Microsoft has a chance for another do-over with its mobile ambitions once Windows 10 launches. The reception to the early versions of the operating system has been positive, thanks largely to the company's decision to go back to old favorites like the original Start screen. The company is also jazzing up the desktop experience by bringing Cortana to the PC.

Over time, that goodwill could carry over to the smartphone realm.

But Microsoft needs to step up its game when it comes to the marketing push. The company has been making a smartphone OS for years, but most consumers are either unaware of the Windows option on the phone, or are reluctant to jump ship from their current device.

Microsoft can't expect to change their minds with a short but loud marketing blitz touting one smartphone.

"If Microsoft wants this to succeed, they will have to support this with a year-round campaign," said Roger Entner, a consultant with Recon Analytics. "You have to make it look like a winner; you have to make it look like it's easy."

For now, he said, "consumers don't take it seriously as a viable option."

Watch this: Microsoft shows off Windows 10 on a Lumia smartphone