Why the Lumia 950 failed and what phone makers should learn from that

Some people stick to what they know. Once an iPhone, always an iPhone. Others like to try new things every once in a while. In doing so, there’s always the risk of picking a dud.

My first smartphone was a Sony Ericsson P1. Followed by an iPhone 2. Then a Samsung Galaxy S2. Then another iPhone (first 3, then 4s). So when the time came to update, I thought I’d get the Lumia 950 _ Microsoft’s attempt at establishing its Windows operating system in the smartphone market.

Why? I was tired of iPhones:

  • they are expensive;
  • the operating system is slick but restrictive (transferring files onto a PC is complicated);
  • and the poor battery was driving me crazy: I need a good 12 hours of heavy use out of a phone otherwise there’s a risk I’ll be left with a brick by the end of a long day’s reporting, just as I’m about to file. Not good.

I’d tried Android phones and various models looked interesting, but for security reasons my employer only allows Samsung phones and the Galaxy S6 didn’t appeal.

The Lumia 950 on the other hand looked like a good phone:

  • It has a large battery and USB-C, the next generation cable standard;
  • The camera is superb;
  • Microsoft promised all the necessary apps would be available for Windows 10;
  • It offered seamless integration with my desktop operating system

After six months I can say that the Lumia 950 was a poor choice. I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so. Sales have been weak and Microsoft recently announced it was scaling down its smartphone business. This indicates that the company has realized it can’t compete with Android and Apple.

Things could have been different. If Microsoft hadn’t rushed out the phone and made clear it wouldn’t maintain it, the Lumia line could have been the start of a genuine rival system to Android and iOS. Here’s what went wrong:

  • The big battery, a key reason why I bought the phone. It has 3,000 mAh, which in layman’s terms means it’s got more juice than most smartphones out there (the iPhone 6S has 1,750 mAh; the Galaxy S6 has 2,550 mAh). In practice, though, it drains quickly. Various updates have brought some improvement but it appears this was achieved by throttling the WiFi and phone signal. The biggest drain remains the screen. Why smartphone makers don’t just offer smaller screens (e.g. 4.5 inch instead of 5-5.5 inch) and thicker batteries (4,000 mAh seems a good size) is a mystery to me. What’s the use of a big screen if the battery is dead or you can’t get WiFi 5 meters away from the router?
  • The apps available for Windows 10 mobile are truly disappointing. Sure, Wunderlist, Slack and the New York Times are there. So are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (BETA). But many of the apps seem to be nothing but interfaces for the website; others haven’t been maintained since Windows 8.1, and some are so full of bugs that they’re basically useless. Surprisingly, it’s not just the 3rd party apps. The latest update of Microsoft Maps has basically broken the app. It now sends me in the wrong direction, messes up public transport times and regularly ‘forgets’ all of my favorites by logging me out of my account when there’s no cell signal. Other apps that I’d like to be able to use simply aren’t available, including Bambuser (live video streaming), NewsRepublic (great news app) and for my online bank.
  • The overall system has a few nice touches but overall it suffers from horrendous glitches. One of them is that the phone likes to update at random, and this involves restarting. When it does that, various settings are restored to default, including language, temperature (I don’t use Fahrenheit!), location and quiet times. Most problematically, for a journalist, is the fact that the SIM PIN needs to be entered after every reboot (even though I’ve got PIN security off), meaning I risk not receiving calls for hours after the phone randomly updates in the middle of the night. Another problem that shows Microsoft engineers just haven’t used the phone in the real world is that not all phone calls appear in the call list. How can this happen? It’s absurd.

You might ask why I haven’t thrown the phone into a lake yet. Well, first of all it’s expensive and doesn’t belong to me. Secondly, the phone does have a few nice features. These include:

  • Built-in call recording at the touch of a button, which is very helpful;
  • Good cross-integration of Outlook and Gmail calendars (though again, why can’t items be moved between calendars after they’ve been created?);
  • The camera is really, really good (though I’m disappointed Microsoft dramatically cut space on Onedrive and videos sometimes have visible glitches when panning);
  • The phone charges quickly, provided you’ve got a USB-C cable and the right power adapter to hand;
  • Plug it into a PC and the phone immediately appears as another drive, just like it should (that’s where you lost me, Apple)

I expect smartphone makers are already using the Lumia 950 as a case study in how not to try to break into the Apple-Android duopoly. The question is, will anyone dare to try again and do better than Microsoft, or are we going to be left with those two systems forever more?

Update (July 29, 2016): Last week I received an email from Amazon that they are killing their app for Windows Phone. A few days later the map maker HERE, once Microsoft’s stablemate, announced a new app that won’t be available for Windows Phones. I think it’s pretty clear where this is heading…

Update (Oct. 3, 2016): It was inevitable. After one nighttime wake-up alert too many from a phone that simply can’t remember core settings I’ve ditched the Lumia 950 and gone back to Android. All the apps are there and they all work as designed. I miss the great camera on the Lumia, that’s for sure. I also notice that some of the annoying ‘tracking’ features of apps are back: Twitter, for example, seems to give me only selective tweets based on ones that I interacted with in the past. But otherwise it’s a relief to be back in the mainstream.

  • Adkins chuck

    Hunt for motive in Munich??? Are you F#$%$##G SERIOUS? WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO START ACKNOWLEDGING THE ISLAM IS IN A WAR WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD AND NOBODY HAS THE BALLS TO REPORT IT!!!!!

  • Frank Jordans

    Police say there is no suggestion yet that the man was motivated by Islamic extremism or in touch with extremist groups. Why not let the authorities do their job first before applying your prejudices to a crime?