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Editorial – Looking Back at Windows Phone – Chris Gavula

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This article and its photographs were written and taken by Chris Gavula, iTechGear.org Editor.

I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic lately.  In a mobile world dominated by Android and iOS, I fondly remember what “could have been.”  I remember the brief few years we had a third option – Windows Phone.  And it’s come up in conversation a few times lately as well. Not to mention that the head of Microsoft recently said he felt it may have been a mistake to abandon it when and how it did.

In the “old days,” I had various Windows Phone models.  I recently pulled out two: a Lumia 1520, a gorgeous, large-format phone, and an MS Lumia 950XL, one of the last Windows Phone models released.  Both are running Windows Phone 10, an operating system where MS started using an almost common core for both the desktop and the phone, and they were trying to push the idea of Universal apps that could easily be distributed and run on both.  None of that continued for long, but it was an exciting idea.

So why was the platform abandoned?  Well, it was mainly about the apps – or the lack thereof.  The challenge was that they needed to compete with Android and iOS and get developers to develop for the platform, and that did happen to some extent, but not nearly enough.  It seemed there was always some app people wanted that wasn’t there.  It didn’t help that Microsoft didn’t seem to put enough effort into the platform, and it didn’t help that phone carrier stores – at least in the United States –pushed these devices to the back of the store and usually didn’t promote them.  I always felt MS should have incentivized things more.  Maybe they could have gotten Google to develop a YouTube app (some rumors say Google already had one and wouldn’t release it) or other apps for the Google space by maybe offering to put Google search on the phone – who knows what would have been possible with a little more backing?

So why did some of us really like the devices and the OS?  They were usually well built with great screens and cameras, especially for the time.  They had a functional user interface reminiscent of the current Windows 10/11 start button – all tiles that could show you other useful information even before you clicked on the app – kind of like widgets today, but a bit more elegant, in my opinion.  And those phones were generally fast and smooth.  And they were different than the Android/iOS dichotomy.

So again, waxing nostalgic, I pulled out my old Lumia 1520 and 950XL and powered them up for one more ride out of the stable.  The hardware and screen displays still look good – even up against current phones.  They are still running smoothly and reasonably quickly.  The Edge browser and the built-in MS apps are all still excellent on these devices; if that was all I needed, I might still be happy using them.

Some of the service-based MS apps weren’t quite as solid.  MS News (which is called Start on Android and iOS these days) would show a cover image on its tile but would spin without bringing up any news stories when launched.  The weather app was similar – the tile sowed current local weather, but it revealed an empty page with no data.  Very disappointing.

Interestingly, the Movies and TV app works and shows the items in my MS account.  It lets me see current trailers and works like it always did – that was a pleasant surprise.  MS One Note also allows me to work with my contemporary notebooks.

The MS App Store was very hit or miss; worse, it would show you current Windows apps that can’t run on your phone.  It’s not pretty.  Half the time, the app would hang up / lock up or spin and not display anything.

On an interesting side note, the 950XL even had an always-on display, a feature that is only now becoming “a thing.”   It was an amazingly cool thing at the time!

Third-party apps?  Well, if they were already installed, they often still worked. However, finding the still available apps required searching for archives and repositories and looking at multiple versions of apps that often needed a particular build to work.  I’m also not sure if Windows Phone apps fall into the category of “abandonware” or not.  It’s a grey area, at best.  I don’t necessarily recommend going down that path if you are exploring the Windows Phone space.

So, what are the takeaways from my trip down memory lane?  Well, I realized it probably wouldn’t be that hard to turn a few things back up and make the back end for Windows Phone almost entirely functional again.  But do I think that MS will do that despite their comments of regret?  No.  Not.  There’s no financial incentive for them to do so and no third-party market at this point, even if they did.  And I can’t see manufacturers building phones again or developers returning to a defunct market.

But that makes it all the sadder because it is still an excellent OS and could be even more impressive with just a few updates.  Would I go back to it?   The answer is yes; if the apps I needed were there, I would return to them.  It’s an excellent OS and good for productivity.   And it’s different than other Mobile OSes, and in a good way.   And in a world where iOS and Android are becoming more and more similar, wouldn’t “something different” be nice again?

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