Why Microsoft May (or May Not) Build Its Own Windows Phone

The tech world always needs a good rumor to obsess over, and lately it's been the idea of a Windows Phone made by Microsoft.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Microsoft/Techland Illustration

The tech world always needs a good rumor to obsess over, and lately it’s been the idea of a Windows Phone made by Microsoft.

A report from the Wall Street Journal claims that Microsoft is testing its own smartphone right now, in conjunction with component suppliers in Asia.

In typical Journal fashion, the report cites “people familiar with the situation,” and is light on details. One source said the phone’s display will measure between four and five inches, which is just slightly more specific than saying “it will be a phone.” Whether the Microsoft Windows Phone will actually go into mass production remains uncertain.

Other rumors have come before this one. The Verge has reported that Microsoft is considering its own phone as a “Plan B.” Boy Genius Report and WPCentral have also offered some scuttlebutt.

(MORE: Windows Phone 8: This Time for Sure?)

These reports give off a whiff of smoke from a probable fire, but perhaps the most solid hint of all comes from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in a letter to company shareholders that laid out the company’s future:

There will be times when we build specific devices for specific purposes, as we have chosen to do with Xbox and the recently announced Microsoft Surface. In all our work with partners and on our own devices, we will focus relentlessly on delivering delightful, seamless experiences across hardware, software and services.

It’s not crazy to think that Microsoft would build a phone to go along with its tablets and game console, if the situation called for it.

Rumor has it that Microsoft only decided to sell the Surface after seeing what PC makers were doing. That makes sense; Surface, with its built-in kickstand and clever keyboard covers, is quite different from all the other Windows 8 and Windows RT hybrids on the market now. Dockable tablets and swiveling Ultrabooks have their own perks, but they’re not the same as the Surface, whose laptop-like elements practically disappear when you don’t need them. It executes Microsoft’s vision for a “no compromises” tablet in a way that PC makers’ hardware does not.

Does Microsoft need to do the same thing with a Windows Phone? That’s a trickier question to answer.

(MORE: 6 Things Windows Phone 8 Still Needs to Succeed)

Windows Phone 8, for all its visual flair, isn’t a fundamentally different kind of operating system than Apple‘s iOS or Google’s Android. It’s not like Windows 8, whose ability to jump between a touch-optimized interface and a traditional desktop demands a new breed of hardware. So it’s hard to imagine what hardware void is being left by companies like HTC and Nokia–especially because Microsoft works closely with them on their Windows Phone handsets.

As WPCentral has pointed out, there may be other reasons why Microsoft would build its own phone. Perhaps the company wants to release an unlocked, unsubsidized phone at lower prices than hardware makers are willing to go, allowing for more control over the software than wireless carriers will allow. Or maybe Microsoft wants to put its own brand name front-and-center on a phone of its own design.

In any case, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Microsoft has figured out a unique approach to smartphone hardware. I wouldn’t have dreamed up Surface on my own, but Microsoft did. It’s foolish to assume there are no smartphone design possibilities that the world hasn’t seen yet. Until the rumor mill spins a little faster, there’s only one thing that’s certain: If Microsoft does release a phone, it won’t be like anything that’s on the market now.

MORE: How to Tell If Windows 8 Is Succeeding