Microsoft have developed versions of their Windows operating system for mobile devices for many years. Long before the iPhone took the world by storm and made an all-touch device desirable to the average consumer, Microsoft had Windows Mobile.
The transition to Windows Phone from Windows Mobile was seen as a more consumer friendly decision, in the wake of iOS and Android popularising smartphones. The metro-style Live Tile interface, inclusion of social media and integration with modern Microsoft products including the Xbox Live and Music brands turned Windows Phone into a modern option in the smartphone world.
In a similar fashion to BlackBerry, this alienated some core users of the Windows Mobile product; primarily corporates and enterprise. However there remained(s) support for these consumers and the change in environment and style was considered necessary for Microsoft to remain relevant in the consumer space.
Windows on mobile and desktop are now far more closely linked with the introduction of Windows 10 in 2015; the Live Tile interfaces of both mirroring each other and application store is shared. The move to creating a holistic "Windows environment" with many devices is now well underway.
Windows Mobile, was targeted at businees and the more technologically minded. It was similar in layout to a desktop Windows system that had been graphically modified for small screens and touch input, working well with a stylus on the resisitive screens of the time.
Windows Mobile had a small but ardent following, however during the 'smart' revolution that arguably began with BlackBerry's push email services and exploded with the iPhone, Microsoft never really grew beyond their 'geeky' persona.
Windows Phone 7
The first attempt to address this was with Windows Phone. This system was targeted directly at the consumers now buying thousands of Androids and iPhones, and designed to match their core feature sets, with Microsoft completely writing a new operating system, rather than incorporating any desktop code as was the case with Windows Mobile.
Launched as Windows Phone 7 October 2010, the brand sat nicely next to the very popular desktop OS Windows 7 and followed on from the final version number of Windows Mobile: 6.5. Unfortunately this fortuitous bit of naming and somewhat positive reviews didn't translate well into sales.
Microsoft decided to tear up Windows Phone 7 and develop Windows Phone 8 as a separate entitiy, so Windows Phone 7 phones did not get an upgrade and some features were not interoperable.
Windows Phone 8
In Windows Phone 8, Microsoft leaned towards unifying the desktop & mobile systems rather than keeping them separate. This design ethos was also apparent in the desktop Windows 8 which could switch between a 'standard' and 'portable' desktop for tablets and touch interfaces.
Windows Phone 8 incorporated many features from the new Windows 8 desktop OS and so there was a level of interaction bewteen the systems, especially in media situations such as the Xbox interface for games, video and music.
Windows Phone 8 had 3 point releases before being updated to Windows Phone 8.1, which is considered a new system and the 3rd generation of Microsoft's modern mobile systems.
Update 1 (GDR 1)
General Distribution Release 1, a minor update known as Portico, was rolled out on December 2012.
Update 2 (GDR 2)
General Distribution Release 2 began in July 2013.
Update 3 (GDR 3)
General Distribution Release 3 began in on October 14, 2013.
Windows Phone 8.1
All WP 8 devices were updated WP 8.1, dependent on carriers providing updates in some areas.
8.1 introduced Cortana, a personal assistant some likened to Apple's Siri and named for the popular AI character from the Halo video game series. 8.1 also brought a mobile version of the Internet Explorer 11 browser.
Windows Phone 8.1 had 2 major point updates: GDR1 & GDR2. Certain Lumia branded devices could also make use of updates named Cyan and Denim; these were often hardware specific and so are not considered 'true' updates to the Windows Phone 8.1 OS as a whole.
Update 1 (GDR 1)
General Distribution Release 1 added new languages and region support for Cortana, the option to organize apps into folders on the Start Screen, SMS forwarding of multiple messages, improvements to Xbox Music, a live tile for the Windows Phone Store and an option for sandboxing applications.
Update 2 (GDR 2)
General Distribution Release 2 began in July 2015, providing increased security for OEMs, extra languages and additional technology support and is also reported to bring an anti-theft mode
Following on from the work in Windows Phone 8, Windows 10 continues the message of a harmony between smartphone and personal computing. Microsoft are keen to market 'Continuum' a feature to allow you to seamlessly transition between mobile and standard computing devices on the Windows 10 platform.
Microsoft have announced that they would like all Windows Phone 8 devices to transition to Windows 10. As of late 2015 there is seemingly no hardware issue that will stop this change from occuring, and the only roadblock maybe devices that are bound to carrier updates rather than direct Microsoft updates.
During the Windows Phone 8 era, the main manufacturer of devices was Nokia, who partnered with Microsoft and in late 2011 released the Nokia Lumia 800, the first Nokia Windows Phone.
Microsoft formally acquired Nokia's device portfolio in April 2014 and established Microsoft Mobile as a wholly owned subsidiary that continued to use the Lumia brand to produce smartphones and tablets.
Other manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC and Huawei have licensed Windows Phone versions from Microsoft. Sales and support of OEM branded Windows devices were lower than expected however, and many have argued that the Nokia partnership and subsequent acquisition made it difficult for other OEMs to make Windows projects financially viable when compared to comparatively low-risk ventures with Android.
Microsoft know that connectivity and staying up to date is highly important in the modern world and every Windows Phone will keep your information and feeds updated at all times, with the Live Tiles informing you straight away when an unread update is waiting for you. Being able to wirelessly synchronise your e-mail, contacts, calendar and social networking feeds is Windows Phone's bread and butter.
Email synchronisation in particular is very simple. Similar to Android and the use of a Gmail account, if you have a Windows Live (otherwise "Outlook") account then you're set up almost straight out of the box - just enter your Windows Live username and password and the functions you are used to on your desktop PC are available to view and edit on your phone. Having your emails fed to your phone makes replying to and reaching out to your contacts as easy as SMS.
If you use Gmail, Yahoo, AOL or any other major provider, Windows Phone will still work for you. With a little setting up and a few minutes in the settings you can still get your important updates pushed through.This wireless synchronisation means that whenever your phone is in a WiFi hotspot or has 3G connectivity (data charges apply) you are constantly able to keep on top of your email folder when away from your desk.
The Live Tiles interface makes a Windows mobile device instantly recognisable. The home screen is divided up into these tiles which link to features and applications such as messaging, email and social media feeds like Facebook. They are called Live because they update in real time with information such as status updates and your most recent unread message.
Groups of similar content are organised in Windows Phone into ‘hubs’. For instance the Pictures hub will show not just the images you take on your camera but also provide access to images from social media sites if you wish. The People hub will incorporate contacts from your phone memory, email accounts, social media accounts and others.
Devices running Windows 10, Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 have access to the Microsoft Store. Apps can be published to the store and depending on your device specifications, you may or not be able to view / download a given application.
There are various categories for applications to separate consumer and business type apps. Users with an Xbox Live account will also have the ability to link the two and gain access to premium games and content exclusive to Windows Phone users.
The Microsoft Store is currently far smaller than either the Apple App Store or Google Play, with some popular apps available on those platforms not available on Windows Phone.
As Windows for mobile gathers more users we may see more developers release native applications for Windows. As an aside, Microsoft has an "iOS bridge" to allow developers of iOS application to easily port their code to Windows, rather than learn to code a whole new application.