The return of Windows Phone?

March 5, 2023

I have certainly not abandoned this blog – it’s just that the first months of 2023 were absolutely crazy to me. And in my absence, it seems like ChatGPT is the thing that everyone is talking about now. ChatGPT was released in November 2022, and it quickly has become part of the daily workflow of the modern working person – including myself. Modern Luddites, in all of its facets, are trying to make the point that everyone will go unemployed due to the recent innovations in AI, or that digital art will be entirely wiped as machines are now able to imitate it… Instead of those catastrophist analysis, what I want to focus is how those advancements will impact tech. Specifically: mobile phones.

In a way, this text is very intrinsically linked to the very purpose of this blog, which is to serve as a time capsule of sorts for future digital archaeologists. So let’s see in 10 years what I got right or not – and today, I’ll talk about… Windows Phone. Kinda.

Back to the 90s: Microsoft expands its dominance

OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, is heavily funded by Microsoft. The business dealings are a bit confusing to me and I have not dug up too deep into that, but the fact is, Microsoft services will soon get some pretty interesting advancements powered by AI.

We are seeing this unravelling right now; big people at MS have already hinted that Windows 12 (or whatever it will be called) will have an AI-optimized UX. Instead of just asking Cortana to do things for you, it seems like AI might take a more prominent role in getting the user more out of their PC. We have to see how that works out.

With that in mind, here’s a bet I’m willing to make: Windows Phone, or its spiritual successor, will make a return.

16 years of stagnation

Think about it: right now, smartphones do almost the exact same things as they did in the late 2000s. Surely, in those last 2 decades, we had a bunch of apps come and go, many new hardware features were added like gyroscopes and all kinds of sensors, powerful processors and 918239812 megapixel cameras, but those were all *evolutions* of an existing product; I would dare to say that since the release of the iPhone, there has not been any game-changing innovation in the mobile space.

AI has the potential to changed once again our entire relationship with mobile phones like the original iPhone did. Certainly, currently Android and iOS both offer their own assistants – but they’re ‘dumb’ in the sense that you need to ask them what you want. I’d like to make a point that AI can be revolutionary in terms of user experience when you don’t know what you want, and this might prove an extremely important trump card.

Suppose you are planning a trip with your family. You certainly can tell your phone “Ok Google/Siri, find me flights to Paris for March 21st”, then buy those tickets, and then ask your assistant “help me find an hotel close to the Louvre”, and then book your hotel, and then compare subway routes and prices, and opening times for each place you want to go, and then find a place to have lunch that won’t be packed with other tourists, and so on. That’s why travel agents were such a huge thing in the 90s – and why, albeit technology did drive many of them into unemployment, they still exist as a profession (at least they do here in Brazil).

That could be made different by using AI. Imagine a *consultant* instead of an *assistant*, powered by a human-like AI. “CortanaGPT(?), help me plan a vacation to somewhere in Europe”, and you talk to this GPT-powered Cortana like you would talk to a travel agent. In 5-10 minutes you can reach the conclusion you want to visit France, then after some more talking CortanaGPT could send you a payment link with everything ready for you: tickets, hotel, subway, everything. Hours of work condensed in about a few minutes of talking to an AI.

I’ve used the example of traveling, but you can really change that to anything. The smartphone right now is useful as a tool for when you already know what you want to do; the next revolution, powered by AI, could be to transform it into an actual personal consultant, helping with decision-making and so much more.

Why only Microsoft can do it…

I’m by no means a MS fanboy. Hell, I really only use Windows for games these days, and most of my daily work is on Linux or Mac. But the only company I see positioned right now to make this jump is Microsoft – simply because they made the right bet with OpenAI.

It appears like Google has not positioned itself too well in that sense. Google Bard left a terrible first impression on people after a disastrous presentation, and Apple has mostly been silent in this space. Those two account for practically all of the smartphone OS makers right now, and they don’t have anything that compares to what MS has in their hands.

They have been facing their own problems in other spaces also. There are rumors that Apple plans to retire the iPhone as we know it soon, which means that they will have to take a lot of risk with a new product, not to mention they just faced a huge chip shortage. And Google products have been criticized lately for being ‘stuck in the past’ – more specifically, their search engine, as a list of directories, is basically a relic from the 90s, which no longer resonates well with much of its userbase.

…But they might not

This does not mean that the road ahead will not be bumpy. Microsoft has attempted to enter the mobile market many times before, most recently with the Nokia Lumia devices, and they simply did not have the wide acceptance which Apple and Google had managed to score with their respective phone OSes. This might make MS conservative in its bets; Azure is a cash cow, Windows is still widely used and they now have an entire range of products they can offer by leveraging AI, without all the risks associated with manufacturing a new hardware product in a world where chips aren’t as easy to obtain as they were 10 years ago. Not to mention that consumers worldwide still haven’t fully recovered from the economic collapse caused by the pandemic, so they’re less prone to try technologies which haven’t proven themselves like Android and iOS did.

So, they are already in a comfortable position. Why risk it?

And that thought can be a bit dangerous. The most relevant example is Intel; it stayed ahead of AMD for about a decade… Then Ryzen came and they’re now struggling to fight it. Calculating risk/reward is paramount to any business, and that’s why the tech sector is such an economic powerhouse; everything is risky, and everything is rewarding. Having a strict risk-averse strategy in an extremely dynamic sector in which its conjuncture can change radically in just 6 months – like it’s the case with AI – can be as dooming as going all-in in a single product (*ahem* Metaverse). The future will tell which strategy Microsoft will choose – and how well it will work out.