If you are reading this, there’s a chance you might at least have heard about a mobile operating system called Windows Phone even though you never came close to owning a device running it. But there’s also a chance you never knew such a thing existed so let me just very briefly recapitulate.
Ever since Microsoft had built its quasi-monopoly in terms of an operating system for personal desktop computers and laptops with Windows, many assumed that they would have a good chance of utilizing this might in the emerging field of increasingly potent mobile phones with more complex operating systems. But that didn’t really happen. While Microsoft did introduce the Windows CE-based „Windows Mobile“ for pocketable computing devices in the early days of the 21st century, the real revolution in this market would only happen years later with the arrival of Apple’s iPhone. In a now infamous statement during an interview with USA Today in 2007, Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer was extremely skeptical about Apple’s first phone: „There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.“ Things turned out slightly different as we all know today. While Apple with iOS and soon after Google with Android went all-in on mobile touch-screen operating systems for smartphones, Microsoft hesitated for a long time – too long as history would tell. When they finally came out with Windows Phone 7 (the „7“ picking up from earlier OS versions under the „Windows Mobile“ moniker) in 2010 they were three years late to the party and never managed to catch up again despite occasional glimpses of hope. One, maybe THE crucial factor for failure was the fact that many popular 3rd party apps were not available for Microsoft’s platform or only in versions inferior to those on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The acquisition of Nokia’s mobile phone division in 2014, a tighter integration with its desktop OS Windows 10 in the form of Windows 10 Mobile in 2015 and the app porting projects “Astoria” (Android) and “Islandwood” (iOS) were last desperate attempts to turn the tide but to no avail. Satya Nadella taking over from Steve Ballmer as CEO in 2014 also meant Microsoft reevaluated its business strategy and philosophy to concentrate on platform-independent services instead of pushing their own platform. In October 2017 a Microsoft executive revealed that they would cease development of new features and hardware for the platform, in January 2019 the company announced that software support for Windows 10 Mobile will end December 10, eventually postponing the date to January 14 2020 which will be next week.
End of life, end of story?
So why would I now bother to write about Windows Phone / Windows 10 Mobile when it’s being lowered into the virtual „cybergrave“ right now? Does anyone care at all? While I do assume that many will not have exactly waited for someone to do this, I consider Microsoft’s passing mobile OS to be worth a look in retrospect because not only was it a really refreshing alternative to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android in terms of design but it actually had quite a bit of potential as a platform for mobile content creation in my opinion – potential that was wasted or got lost along the way, that is.
Mobile photographers livin’ the Lumia dream
The Windows Phone device that single-handedly put the platform on the map for mobile content creation was without a doubt the Nokia Lumia 1020 which launched in the summer of 2013. Sporting a six-element lens array by Carl Zeiss with a whopping 41 (!) MP sensor to go along, optical image stabilization, a full set of manual controls for photography, a dedicated shutter button and (added via software update a bit later) the ability to shoot in RAW/DNG, the 1020 was a dream come true for mobile photographers, outshining pretty much everything the iPhone or Android handsets had to offer at that time. There weren’t any advanced photo editing apps around in the Windows Phone Store but as long as your focus was on the capturing experience this didn’t really matter much.
What’s with the video?
Things weren’t quite as impressive in the videography department however. Sure, the spectacular 41MP sensor was a very early example of how a photo camera megapixel „overkill“ could be utilized to provide a quasi-lossless digital zoom for video which only needed a small fraction of the 41MP prowess when recording in 1080p resolution. But while you had a pro mode with advanced manual controls for photography at hand, there wasn’t an equivalent for video – the fact that this asymmetrical feature distribution is still the standard with 99% of smartphones today isn’t really an excuse. The common simplicity and bare-bones functionality of most native camera apps doesn’t mean you have to throw in the towel for more ambitious videography work with your phone as long as 3rd party apps fill the gap but that’s exactly the point where we touch upon a sore spot with Windows Phone.
Up until very late in the game, when ProShot added video functionality to its advanced camera app for Windows 10 Mobile in the second half of 2016 there was not a single 3rd party video camera app in the Windows Phone store that provided a robust set of manual controls like ISO and shutter speed to set a precise exposure. You couldn’t even lock the exposure for video in any of the camera apps with video functionality. It wasn’t all bad though, there were some lights in the dark. I never owned a Lumia 1020 but had a 920 for over a year as my daily driver and I was pleased to find out that the native camera app supported the use of external mics via the headphone jack which is often an indispensable feature when using the phone for professional video work.
Another beacon (at least for folks residing in regions which use the PAL broadcast standard) was the ability of Lumia Camera (which was a separate app from the stock camera but could be considered an advanced native camera app) to shoot video in 25fps and not only the standard 30fps that is common for the native camera app of basically every single smartphone on the planet. Unfortunately, Lumia Camera did not support the use of external mics while the stock camera app did not support shooting in 25fps so if you needed both (and many did) you were out of luck. There could have been a happy ending to this when the Windows Phone native camera and Lumia Camera were merged into one app (I think they dubbed it „Windows Camera“) for the new Windows 10 Mobile. You now had white balance presets, manual focus and basic exposure adjustment (but only EV, not precise shutter speed / ISO values, and still no exposure lock!) at hand, plus PAL frame rate support. Devices running Windows 10 Mobile (at least the Lumias) were the only smartphones able to shoot in 25fps natively without the help of 3rd party apps. Up until this very day this has not been possible on any phone running Android or iOS! But incomprehensibly, the fusion of the two camera apps dropped the support for external mics (at least that’s what I found on the Lumia 950 and 550) despite the fact that it was still working in a Windows 10 Mobile preview version I ran on a Lumia 630 before the final release apparently killed it off. As mentioned before, ProShot (which had been a photo camera only for a long time) eventually added a video mode with a lot of pro features like precise shutter speed / ISO exposure control, an audio level meter and support for external mics. But it basically did so at a time when the MS Windows 10 Mobile had already hit the iceberg.
Windows Phone = Lumia?
If you are wondering at this moment why I have been only talking about Lumia devices in the context of Windows Phone and if Lumia phones basically equal Windows Phones you are both right and wrong. Yes, there were other companies than Nokia (and later Microsoft itself): Samsung, HTC, Acer, Blu and HP were among those launching phones running Microsoft’s mobile OS but their support for Windows Phone was very sparse and short-lived so it’s pretty hard to imagine that when someone talks about a „Windows Phone“ device now they are not referring to a Lumia phone.
It’s also undisputed that it were the Lumia flagships following the pioneering work of the Nokia Lumia 1020 which gave Windows Phone its reputation with mobile camera enthusiasts: photos and video footage from devices like the Lumia 920, 930, 950 and 950 XL were able to go head-to-head with iPhones and high-end Android handsets in terms of image quality. So why did Windows Phone fail to establish itself as a viable alternative for mobile content creation with smartphones?
Minding the app gap
Yes, we’re back talking about apps again. While the hardware was competitive (at least in certain cases), the software – or to be more precise: the software eco system wasn’t really compared to the other two dominant mobile platforms. I already pointed out that there was a serious lack of advanced 3rd party camera apps for video (FilmicPro actually ran a crowd funding campaign for a Windows Phone version once, it failed miserably) but the problems were not only confined to the capturing experience, they were just as imminent for post production.
While Windows Phone 8.1 can actually be considered a huge step forward for the platform in terms of having any kind of video editing app available at all (apparently up until WP 8 the OS had prevented 3rd party apps from integrating even basic video editing tasks into their apps), seeing the launch of apps like Movie Maker 8.1, Videoshop (which turned out to become the only video editor available across all three major mobile platforms), MovieJax and the frustratingly short-lived Movie Creator Beta, they were all relatively basic – none of them offered a second video track for instance. That being said, they did allow you to create and produce a simple video story by adding several clips to a timeline, trim off unwanted parts, add audio like voice-over and very basic titles. But those who had hoped that this first wave of usable video editors would mature or bring about even more advanced ones over time eventually had to admit that their optimism wasn’t justified. The problems of a thin and often quality-lacking eco system in general which got caught up in a vicious circle involving poor sales figures and lacklustre involvement of app developers had a direct impact on the special case of using Windows Phone as a platform for mobile content creation.
You can still get things done!
That didn’t prevent some daring creators from using Windows Phone devices for actual professional videography however, tapping into its strengths while working around the shortcomings. I particularly want to highlight the work of Dutch/Frisian mobile journalist Wytse Vellinga who for some time used a Lumia 930 to produce news reports for the regional broadcaster Omrop Fryslan. Here are some fine examples:
Another example is by Croatian videographer Darko Flajpan who’s working for the national broadcaster HRT and also used a Lumia 930 as a main camera for a whole documentary, here’s the trailer:
To learn something about their personal experience working with Windows Phone in a professional context, I asked them a couple of short questions for the purpose of this article.
Q1: Why did you consider working with a Windows Phone at all?
Wytse Vellinga: “Windows Phone had the best camera quality on any smartphone in those days. And the fact that it could shoot 25fps with the native camera app was extremely helpful for me as a broadcast journalist.”
Darko Flajpan: “Windows Phone (Lumia 1020 in particular) got my attention at the time because of camera capabilities. It was a photo/video beast at that moment and still respectful even today. And with a battery grip which had a tripod thread and a shutter button it was the perfect tool for early MoJos. Also, it had 25fps which was very helpful for later editing and broadcasting. I’ve switched to Lumia 930 as soon it was released and with usable 4K@25fps it was unmatched in the smartphone world. So hardware was top notch and OS was quite polished and user friendly. The price of those smartphones was also on a fair side. I still have couple of 930s…”
Q2: What were the main challenges?
Wytse Vellinga: “The main challenges were the lack of good third party apps. There was no good editor, nor was there an app for making radio reports. And as the years progressed it didn’t get better but it got worse.”
Darko Flajpan: “Main challenges were on the software side. There were just two apps for video editing and those were buggy and not user friendly, so for any editing you had to transfer footage to a laptop. Lack of any support from Google (e.g. no official YouTube app) was quite irritating. On the hardware side, Microsoft never made a tiny bit of code to allow mic input to be used by a camera – for me that was huge.”
Q3: Why did Windows Phone fail in the end in your opinion?
Wytse Vellinga: “Because of what I just said. The lack of apps and the lack of support for those that wanted to build apps. It almost looked like Microsoft did not believe in their own platform.”
Darko Flajpan: “Third party developers were focused on higher value markets (iOS, Android), and Microsoft was not making an effort to attract them. From my point of view Microsoft had no clear strategy for smartphones. Brilliant engineers from Nokia (I’ve met a couple of them) were frustrated how Microsoft treated them – they’ve created great hardware and had just frustrations and lack of support from Microsoft’s side. Now, they are working for Apple and Chinese manufacturers.”
Q4: Do you think there’s any space left between Android and iOS for a third major mobile OS?
Wytse Vellinga: “There is always room for something new. iOS and Android are not perfect so there is room for improvement. But you will have to invest a lot of time and energy in getting app builders on board.”
Darko Flajpan: “This is very complex. If someone creates anything better and more attractive to consumers it will be bought, obstructed or destroyed by the two major players in its very early stage, that is my, not optimistic opinion.”
Finally, I would also like to share a short proof-of-concept video story I created using only the low-budget Lumia 550 (cost me about 50 Euro in used condition), shooting with its native camera app and editing with Videoshop. So it was completely produced on the mobile device. Notice: The Lumia 550 is only able to shoot 720p HD (not 1080p FHD) so the video has the same resolution.
“Slide down to power off”
It’s hard to imagine a more serious focus on mobile content creators alone could have made Windows Phone / Windows 10 Mobile a viable success story but it’s frustrating nonetheless looking back at the undeniable but underdeveloped potential of the platform and the devices that came with it. Fairly recently, Microsoft announced its return to the smartphone market: The long-lasting rumors about a supposed „Surface Phone“ will apparently materialize in the form of the Surface Duo smartphone in 2020. This will however only be a comeback in terms of hardware – the device is supposed to run on Android. So what was your experience with Windows Phone? Did you even know it existed? Did you ever use it and if so did you like it? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming.