Microsoft Sacrifices Lumia’s Potential For A Stronger Surface Phone

(By Ewan Spence)

This leads me to an interesting discussion point. Which of these handsets would I recommend? In terms of software support, available apps and compatibility it feels like there is no difference between the 950 and the 950 XL. The major difference, and one that I would put my purchasing power behind, is that of size. The 950 XL does have the larger screen, it does look towards the phablet market, and those of you who prefer the iPhone 6S Plus or the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 should look to this model.

Announced in October 2015, and released a month later, Microsoft’s Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL smartphones have not set the world alight. The first ‘out of the box’ Windows 10 powered devices occupy a curious pivot point in Microsoft’s plans. What do they tell us about the direction of Microsoft and how it will approach mobile in 2016?

Between them they represent the end of a line of smartphones that stretches back to Nokia’s 2011 decision to go with Windows Phone rather than Android, They also represent Microsoft’s future attitudes to smartphones as a single element of a wide range of Windows 10 powered devices all living on the same code-base, all sharing information, applications, and data, through Microsoft’s cloud-based services.

The two handsets build on past glories, and point the way towards a potential future. Unfortunately it is a very unclear future. With CEO Satya Nadella focusing on Microsoft’s software and cloud services it means that much of the functionality that made Windows Phone a commendable choice in the past is no longer exclusive to the Lumia handsets. You can run Microsoft’s cloud services on iOS and Android easily, and in terms of process and workflow there’s little difference between Windows, Android, and iOS.

Windows Phone stood for a different way of looking at design, interface, and data. It blurred the lines between applications and treated data as the primary glue. You could move between apps with ease, and you did not need to be conscious that you had stepped through six different apps with six different taps because of the deep linking into applications that was present. You went where you needed to go quickly and with little fuss or forethought.

lumia950_lumia950xl_05
Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL (image: Ewan Spence)

In that sense, while Windows 10 brings many of the modern UI principles to the desk bound computers, Windows 10 on the smartphone is a step backwards toward homogenization, the acceptance that silted apps now rule and data is secondary. It should be apps, not data, that are customized to offer millions of choices. The dominance of Android and the acceptance of iOS in the marketplace meant Microsoft continued to water down its mobile user interface that debuted in Windows Phone 7 to be ‘like the competition’ rather than trusting itself.

The Lumia 950 and 950 XL represent the end-point of that thinking, a unique user interface worn down by the competition until it is no different to that which it challenges. The widgets that are now labelled as the Live Tiles are far more about icons to launch an app than presenting ever-changing data. The flow between apps relies on you returning to the home screen to launch the next app, the multitude of menus are good to tinker with but strips away the minimalist success of earlier versions. Windows 10 offers everything the competition can offer, and it brings it to the desktop. Its appearance on mobile feels more like an afterthought, and a poor reflection on Redmond’s ambitions. Technically it’s a great achievement on a mobile device, but it has lost its heart and soul to achieve it.

Specifications wise, the major checklist on both the handsets allows them to be solidly compared to other devices – the 950 XL comes with a SnapDragon 810, 3GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage, microSD support, and a user-removable battery. The smaller 950 gets a slightly smaller SoC with the SnapDragon 808, but everything else remains. In use I didn’t find any notable performance benefits in the 950 XL compared to the 950. Windows Phone has always been an efficient operating system, and the jump to Windows 10 has retained that capability.

The design is utterly utilitarian. Both devices are black boxes, with slight curves along the edges to create larger surface areas without compromising the internal volume. The external buttons are silvered plastic, and the camera housings have a slight bulge to accommodate the PureView camera. There’s nothing special about the design of either handset – and apart from a repositioning of the volume buttons to be either side of the power button in the larger handset, you could be forgiven that Redmond simply applied a 110% scale factor to the plans and made the 950 XL slightly bigger.

They feel more like developer units than consumer retail devices. In a sense, I think they are. The major goals of the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL are wrapped up in Microsoft’s future hardware and software. By sacrificing a short-term win, Redmond hopes to gain a long-term advantage

This leads me to an interesting discussion point. Which of these handsets would I recommend? In terms of software support, available apps and compatibility it feels like there is no difference between the 950 and the 950 XL. The major difference, and one that I would put my purchasing power behind, is that of size. The 950 XL does have the larger screen, it does look towards the phablet market, and those of you who prefer the iPhone 6S Plus or the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 should look to this model.

For everyone else, including myself, the Lumia 950 is more than enough phone. It’s large but not oversized, it’s just about usable one-handed, and it offers all the potential of Windows 10 in the mobile form factor.

And that’s perhaps the greatest strength of the Lumia 950 and 950 XL. These devices may be available to the public, and with a bit of work you should be able to source them on a network deal in the areas where Windows Phone was popular. But these are handsets for those who are looking to live on the bleeding edge. These handsets are for those who are ready to explore Windows 10 alongside Microsoft, to see that new world and make an early claim.

For all the similarities to other smartphone ecosystems (especially Android), Windows 10 is still putting forward a different vision. It’s one that is focused not on the hardware, but to an operating system that is focused on putting the cloud first. The Lumia 950 handsets embodies the awkward ‘cloud first, mobile first’ mission statement from Satya Nadella.

Microsoft has solved the ‘cloud first’ part of that equation for the Lumia range, Windows 10 on smartphones, and the competing smartphone platforms. Arguably ‘mobile first’ has been partly achieved on Android and iOS, but is not quite fully formed on Windows 10. The Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL are the stepping stones (perhaps the stepping smartphones) between the old way and the new way.

The general public will get a refined vision if and when the Surface Phone appears during 2016, but developers, futurists, dreamers and believers can join the journey now with the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL.

I would not expect to see great numbers from the sales of these handsets, but I expect more great ideas to be delivered to these handsets during 2016. These Lumias keep Microsoft in the mobile hardware game, it gives it a significant pool of users to test Windows 10 on smartphones in the real world, and they are a vital part of the path to reach the Surface Phone – which is presumably when Microsoft will want to reap the benefits.

That makes it mission accomplished for the new Lumia devices.

This Article was originally published on Forbes.com

Source – Forbes

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