New York City has begun equipping its police officers with smartphones for tracking 911 calls and remotely accessing databases of criminal activity. In and of itself, this isn’t terribly surprising. Smartphones excel at these type of functions, and the NYPD has a vast set of data it can call on — though concerns have been raised about the close, secretive ties between the Peter Thiel-funded Palantir surveillance company and New York City itself.
What makes this unusual is the devices — the Nokia Lumia 830 and the Microsoft Lumia 640 XL, according to CNET. Both of these are budget smartphones, and both are 18-24 months old (the Nokia 830 dates to September 4, 2014 while the 640 XL was announced in March 2015). It’s surprising to see the NYPD going with Microsoft’s relatively anemic Windows Phone, given the OS now commands just a 1% market share. The report said this wasn’t an accidental choice or payoff — the organization evaluated both iOS and Android and chose to use Windows Phone instead.
The CNET story delves into how Windows Phone devices have improved various aspects of policing, but what’s most surprising is the way the phones solved a simple problem: Getting in touch with a particular policeman (or woman). Before the smartphones rolled out, there was no way for any officer to give out a contact number a victim could reach them at. Instead, it was department policy for messages to be relayed through answering services, some of which were collectively assigned to entire squads. Having a way to get in touch with a specific officer, or to at least leave a message, is important to people, and I’m surprised the NYPD has never had a way to solve this problem before now.
Microsoft’s messaging on Windows Phone has been downright two-faced in 2016. On the one hand, the company has steadfastly maintained it is committed to the platform. New devices like the HP Elite X3 (a Snapdragon 820-equipped smartphone with a 5.9-inch screen and a clear focus on business customers) are meant to demonstrate that commitment, though there’s been no sign to-date of the long-rumored Surface Phone. Microsoft has canceled its efforts to bring Android software to Windows Phone, and it announced earlier this year it won’t hit 1 billion devices on its original schedule due to the implosion of its mobile business.
On the other hand, Windows Phone has virtually no market share, and that matters to employees. Customers don’t want to use one device for work and a completely different OS on their own hardware — and the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend has made it less likely people will carry two or more smartphones. BlackBerry’s own comeback plan was based on how the company could still build a profitable business in corporate boardrooms and Fortune 500 companies. It failed, largely because BlackBerry no longer had much cachet with the companies it once dominated.
Winning these kinds of long-term contracts could help Microsoft build a small Windows Phone business for specific customers. But it’s hard to see how it helps the company regain real market share. Microsoft is under pressure to turn in some kind of success here — if it can demonstrate it built a strong platform with the NYPD, it might be able to win other business across the country from other police departments or organizations. It’s nice to see Windows Phone picking up some success — the operating system has always been better than its market share attested to — but winning the NYPD is meager fare for Microsoft, given the size of the mobile market it once enjoyed.