Microsoft really "launched" Windows 10 Mobile when it unveiled the Lumia 950
in October 2015. After facing a quagmire of delays, contradictions and turnarounds, it wasn't until March 2016 that the update finally arrived for older phones though.
Even then, Microsoft left out the most
popular Windows Phone devices, the sub-$200 budget handsets. It abandoned its original plan to upgrade "every" Windows Phone 8.1 Lumia, admitting it was unable to get the platform running stably on low-end hardware. As it turned out, it was also in a dire state on the flagship handsets. More on that later.
Twelve months on, the vast majority of Windows Phone handsets still run
Windows Phone 8.1. This is down to another strange idiosyncrasy of the rollout: Microsoft hasn't actually "released" 10 Mobile in the traditional sense. Owners have to actively look for the update, installing an app from the Windows Phone Store to opt their device into the new OS.
There are no notifications that the OS is available. In stark contrast with its overly aggressive
Windows 10 desktop campaign, Windows Phone users won't receive a single prompt asking them to install Windows 10 Mobile. The result: most consumers are still unaware it's available, even if they own a supported phone.
The early days
It's safe to say Windows 10 Mobile didn't have the smoothest of releases. Still, you can't judge a book by its cover, or the lack thereof. I installed the infantile OS on my Lumia 1520 and 930 – the aging Windows Phone flagships second only to the 950-series – in the first month of availability back in March 2016.
Back then, it was clear this first release of Windows 10 Mobile was far from ready for public consumption. During the first few months, stability issues, inexplicable bugs and sudden bouts of overheating were commonplace.
Frequently, both phones would abruptly reboot themselves while in use. Performance was a far cry from the well-polished
Windows Phone 8.1. App crashes were a fact of life. Even as a devoted Windows Phone fan, it was painfully evident the platform couldn't be relied upon for any serious use.
Thankfully, Microsoft steadily trickled updates down the pipeline. Although the pace has since slowed, the initial monthly updates delivered noticeable performance improvements every few weeks.
The most pressing bugs were fixed, the app crashes became less frequent and Windows 10 Mobile generally matured. In my experience, last summer's Anniversary Update
completed this work, pulling the platform together, solidifying it and finally rounding off the edges. This brings us up to the present day.
Why I'm still using it
Beyond being a long-time Windows Phone fan, I still rely on 10 Mobile each day because I believe it is the most refined implementation of the "smartphone" concept. When everything is working, Windows 10 Mobile offers a smartphone experience like no other.
The Start screen concept remains the most accomplished mobile launcher experience to date. Highly visual, bright while unobtrusive and at once minimal and insightful, it blends iOS' shortcuts with Android's widgets in a design that's fluid, eye-catching and immediately useful.
The new customisation options introduced with Windows 10 Mobile let the Start screen pivot between striking minimalism and extraordinary information density, letting you craft your phone's interface as you see fit. The WindowsStartscreens
community on Reddit frequently exhibits what's possible.
Combined with Windows 10 Mobile's other convenience features – things like the Word Flow keyboard, cross-device experiences
with PCs and strong Action Center notification capabilities – the Start screen is a launcher that helps rather than hinders you. Whereas iOS' home screen is an obstruction before you reach an app, the Start screen in many cases can remove the need to visit the app at all.
The app gap
The app situation is also improving. Long presented as the reason for Windows Phone's market share issues, Windows 10's Universal App Platform has led to the arrival of some big-name titles.
There are now fully-featured versions of Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Instagram, ported from iOS. Each is regularly updated, albeit usually several months after the original. Twitter's Windows app is fully-featured and companies including Netflix, Dropbox, Uber, Viber, Todoist, Disqus and Slack have all got on board with the idea of universal apps.
There are also apps exclusive to Windows that I couldn’t go without on a rival platform. Nextgen Reader
is an exemplary RSS reader I check dozens of times throughout the day. Likewise, Hivemind's
unique interface introduced a way of browsing Reddit I'd be reluctant to back away from. Google still doesn't make an official Windows YouTube app but many of the
third-party clients in the
Store offer greater functionality than the authentic Android version.
An audience remains
Perhaps more than anything else, I've remained with Windows Mobile because it's still the best platform for people looking to use their phone for work rather than play. For the people who don't need the latest versions of social networks, don't want overly bloated feature lists and wouldn't use emerging sub-ecosystems
, Windows 10 Mobile offers a platform that's unassuming and built for productivity.
From the Start screen's at-a-glance window into your entire digital life to the Edge browser's functional simplicity, Windows 10 Mobile's platform focus on getting things done permeates apps, the interface and its wider ambitions.
Unlike Android and iOS, it doesn't try to impede you or pressure you into trying new tech. Although this stems in part from the lack of active development, the absence of feature bloat is refreshing when compared with the competition. The closest Windows 10 gets to a "headline" phone feature is Continuum, the ability to use a handset as a PC with a companion display. Again, it's productivity-oriented and further extends Windows' unique appeal to its remaining customers.
To me, Windows 10 Mobile represents a smartphone platform that's stripped of the bloat to leave only the essential tools you'll actually use. What's lacking in third-party app support and cutting-edge technology is made up for by the functionality of the features that are present. Despite often considering a switch, I haven't moved away to Android because for my usage Windows 10 Mobile still offers unique value.
The lasting issues
None of this is to say Windows 10 Mobile in its current state is suitable for all. While I now consider it safe to depend on the OS as a daily driver, significant issues persist which often manifest at critical times.
Generally, both of my phones are now stable enough to go for weeks without a reboot. Occasionally, they still do it themselves though, revealing the lingering fragility underneath. A few weeks ago, I pressed the 1520's shutter button to find the camera viewfinder stuttering and unresponsive. I took the photo anyway, only for the phone to hesitate, vibrate and reboot. Needless to say, I missed the shot.
In another incident in the same week, my 930 mysteriously woke up while locked on my desk. The screen didn't dim again. It was entirely unresponsive, refusing to register the touchscreen, buttons or capacitive keys. After a minute, the display went black with the phone still dead to the world.
These aren't isolated incidents – similar catastrophic failures occur during use on a typically bi-monthly basis. While this represents a significant improvement over the weekly reboots experienced last year, the severity of instability is entirely inexcusable for a serious operating system. It's indicative of Microsoft's reluctance to devote
meaningful resources to its mobile development group.
Should you buy a phone with Windows 10 Mobile?
The answer to this question comes down to how you use your phone. The answer may be yes if you want a productive mobile device, you're not interested in the latest apps and you're a heavy user of other Microsoft products. For everyone else – which will be practically all smartphone buyers this year – the answer remains a firm no. Even as a Windows fan, it's difficult to justify further investment in the ecosystem while Microsoft itself is refusing to.
Windows 10 Mobile has come a long way in twelve months. That there's still a lot of work to do is undeniable though. At this point, the platform is still significantly less stable than the Windows Phone 8.1 that preceded it. In moving Windows to a common core, Microsoft seems to have lost the rock-solid basis that characterised its mobile platform of 2014.
While performance is now generally on par between the two, the same can't be said for stability. It's telling that Microsoft still isn't prompting the remaining users of 8.1 to install 10, indicating it's aware that the new OS cannot satisfactorily provide the dependable smartphone experience users demand.
The future of Windows 10 Mobile is firmly in Microsoft's hands. As the company still insists it
remains committed to the ecosystem
, there remain faint glimmers of hope. As it stands, Windows 10 Mobile has great potential, if Microsoft invests more time, engineers and attention.
With even the most long-serving Windows Phone users now leaving the community, it seems increasingly likely the OS could face a quiet death in the near future. Such an event would leave a hole in Microsoft's long-term ambitions for Windows 10 and the Universal Windows Platform
though, reducing the value of its "build once, sell everywhere" Windows Store mantra.
For the time being, it looks like Windows 10 Mobile will continue to see the same languorous pace of development it's received since launch. As the Creators Update
looms on the horizon, bringing the potential of an increased focus on mobile devices thereafter, Microsoft looks set to retain its mobile OS as an asset for when the smartphone market changes course again.
I intend to stick with it until the end, whenever that may be.
Author's Note: While writing this story, news broke that the upcoming Windows 10 Creators Update will not be released to older mobile devices, effectively rendering them end-of-life. Affected handsets include the Lumia 1520 and 930. While this has no material impact on the views expressed in the piece, the development has forced me to reconsider my future commitment to the platform.