Microsoft still has no idea what to do about phones

Or if it does, the software giant isn't sharing. Phones barely got a mention at its Build developer conference keynote.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
3 min read

The clock is ticking for Microsoft.

With every passing day, the world moves further away from the idea of using a phone running on its Windows 10 software. Sure, plenty of folks are comfortable with a Windows-powered PC or even tablet. But a Windows phone is increasingly becoming a foreign concept.

Microsoft, however, doesn't appear to be in a rush. The company spent the bulk of its 140-minute keynote address at its Build developer conference Wednesday talking about artificial intelligence and smarter applications, or "bots," as well as an update to Windows 10. The word "phone" wasn't mentioned until an hour into the presentation, and only in passing.

Terry Myerson, head of Microsoft's Windows and devices business, doesn't see it as a priority. "We're fully committed to that 4-inch screen, there will be a time for it to be our focus, but right now it's part of the family but it's not the core of where I hope to generate developer interest over the next year," Myerson told The Verge.

That's a problem because phones are the gaping hole in the Microsoft's quest to surround you with the Windows 10 experience, which includes laptops, tablets, wearables and even jumbo touchscreen displays. But for most of us, it's the phone that's the center of our lives. It lets us take photos, post Facebook status updates and exchange snaps. Microsoft, which has been trying to worm its way back into our lives with slick products like the Surface Pro 4 and the experimental HoloLens, has essentially been shut out of the phone experience.


Microsoft was keen to talk about HoloLens, but not what it wants to do with phones.

Juan Garzón/CNET

"[Microsoft] needs to continue making phones, otherwise the concept around Windows 10 falls apart -- having that consistent experience across all your devices," said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen.

Still, like Microsoft's last big event in October, mobile and phones took a backseat Wednesday to sexier announcements like time spent with the HoloLens augmented reality headset. HoloLens goes on sale to developers today.

The lack of fanfare on the mobile side could mean the world's largest software maker is holding out for the long-rumored Surface Phone. But the longer Microsoft waits to attempt a comeback, the harder it will be. Windows phones made up just 1.9 percent of the global market in 2015, down significantly from the previous year, according to Gartner. Roughly four out of every five phones ran Android, with iPhones making up most of the difference.

Microsoft is poised to slip even further into irrelevance by remaining mum.

Granted, Build may not be the appropriate venue to discuss new phone hardware since the presentation targets developers. Microsoft also has to deal with problems like app support. The company has said that its Windows 10 platform allows developers to build an app and have it run across all of its devices, a point it reiterated today.

Microsoft isn't wholly without direction on the mobile front. The company has inched its way onto the home screens of iPhones and Android devices with apps based on popular software like Word and Outlook.

But that's not the same as building a Microsoft phone that you can hold in your hands. Most industry experts have written off the company's attempt to build a phone that's appealing in your personal life, a segment dominated by Apple and Samsung at the high end and a host of Chinese vendors with affordable options at the other. Instead, many see an opportunity to build a phone your company will end up assigning you -- a workplace phone to pair with your personal one.

"There is a place for a Surface Phone in the enterprise for IT-issued devices and for some Microsoft fans in the professional and consumer space," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar WorldPanel.

Will Microsoft ever get you to switch from your iPhone 6S or Galaxy S7 to a Surface Phone? That's unlikely.

But if Microsoft waits too long, the world may just move on without Windows phones -- with no turning back.