Before Microsoft answers the question “Why Windows Phone”, people need to ask it

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Its 2015 and Windows Phone is still growing, ever so slightly, as it has been since launch. It has averaged about 9 million a quarter for the last few quarters, with little or no variation in the strategy. The low-end dominates, the high end suffers. The quite simplistic argument of low-end models leading growth has not borne fruit. In a year of focusing of the low-end models, while Windows Phones sales have grown, its growth rate has stalled. Not only that, but its market share has also contracted worldwide as a whole, with minor fluctuations in specific regions. In the public eye, it is either the same or falling in popularity. Keep in mind that there are now over thirty odd varieties of low-end Windows Phones being sold at the moment. Far more than there were in 2013 where Windows Phone had massive growth. If low-end devices lead to gangbuster sales, Windows Phone hasn’t shown it yet. For Microsoft – and OEMs to continue to milk the low-end cow over and over without a change in strategy is proving unwise. As they say, insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results..

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Microsoft is planning two flagship devices later this year, and that can’t be helped. The obvious answer to this predicament would be a combination of higher-end devices to build hype, perhaps a HTC One M9 for Windows and an Ativ S2 or whatever.Now a common objection to this line of thinking is that Microsoft had flagship devices, and they never sold. I agree with that. But why? Why didn’t Microsoft’s high-end devices sell? Not just that, why don’t some of Microsoft’s other low-end models sell? Surely if high-end = bad and low end = hotcakes, then the 620, 625 and 720 should all have sold like gangbusters. The HTC 8S should also have burned up the charts. Yet this isn’t reflected. Does this invite a criticism that perhaps, just maybe, the train of thought of why Windows Phones are succeeding on the low-end may just be a tad shallow.

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The Lumia 920, the most dominant Windows Phone flagship was the fastest selling Windows Phone when it launched. It was widely available – outside the US – on many carriers. It was however, let down by its specs and bulky frame when compared to Android devices that popped out soon after. Fluid performance and hardware optimization can only go so far when your opponents are twice as powerful as you. On the flipside, the first low-cost Lumia, the L620 was all but non-existent in many parts of the world. Add to that the near featureless Windows Phone 8 experience (rotation lock anyone) and it was pretty much DOA. Interestingly, the Lumia 620 is also a counter point to the argument that low-end devices sell a lot. As a device, the Lumia 620 offered a balance of price and specs, including a ClearBack Display, NFC and almost every standard Windows Phone sensor, its sales didn’t quite take off due to availability and other issues.
Then we have the Lumia 520, it sold a ton of devices despite being an objectively poor device compared to the 620 and above. It was a compromise-ridden device that sold well – despite its compromises.

Now we’ve had the Lumia 635, 630, 530 and a slew of other low-end devices. Strangely enough, none of these devices seem to have had quite the same amount of success as the 520. The question this raises here is “Is Windows Phone really successful on low-end devices or was the Lumia 520 just lucky?”. Considering how far Android has come on the low-end with devices like the Moto G and the comparably terribly specced identikit devices Microsoft has pumped up over the last year, it’s very likely that the latter is true.

Nokia Lumia 730 vs Motorola Moto G (2014) : Battle of the mid-range smartphones

The second part of this is due to perception. As Microsoft advertises Windows Phone products as desirable due to their budget nature, they become less so. People want to feel that they’re getting their money’s worth when they buy a product. They want to feel that they have something that will last and that they can be proud of. Nokia’s reputation for dumbphones combined with Microsoft advertising devices like the L635 and certain blogs repeating the tired low-end meme created a spiral of perception and reality. Windows Phone runs well on cheap handsets becomes Windows Phone is for cheap handsets becomes only cheap Windows Phones are worth buying. Only cheap Windows Phones are recommended and only cheap Windows Phones are sold. Cheap, is not a selling point for anyone because the competition could simply go cheaper. It’s a classic self-fulfilling prophecy.To make matters worse, after cancelling the McLaren, Microsoft released a slew of low-end Lumia devices into the market. With neither buzz nor USP (cheap is not one) to carry them, reports have indicated that these products have appeared to each fall flat one after another.

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To grow Windows Phone Microsoft must first raise awareness and make it desirable. People aren’t talking about it in the tech media. Budget phones aren’t “sexy” enough and the lack of a desirable device automatically removes it from consideration for many Phone ads are a great start, and indeed in the UK Microsoft is doing quite a bit to stay on their toes. The expansion of the Microsoft store is also a great idea. A physical Microsoft store presence in several markets will help create a positive link between desirable devices like the Surface and the Xbox with Lumia.

Another thing that Microsoft has seemingly lost in the transition from Nokia is the influx of big apps. We’ve had a few games in the last week, but apps like Instagram and Tumblr remain neglected. Taking a look at Microsoft’s Windows 10 partnership list, this appears to not have changed. Yahoo and Google are still not on board, Kik is dead, Snapchat remains cold and Instagram seems doomed to being a perpetual beta. If Microsoft cannot provide strong suite of popular apps at its next Windows Mobile focused event, it then risks having the discussion on Windows Mobile head back to apps, a very undesirable state of affairs.Last, and best, Microsoft must now convince its partners to make worthwhile phones for it. It would be one thing if Microsoft were to use its partners to create low-end devices while focusing on high-end devices, it is another thing entirely for all parties involved to be making low-end devices.

 

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Take for example a look at the EU5, the USA and Australia. These regions all have multiple flagship devices in the top 10 of handsets sold Windows Phone wise indicating that first-world markets would prefer to use higher end devices due to the nature of their economies and how handsets are purchased. One could opt for a Moto G or Lumia 640, but when the Moto X and 930 are being sold on contract for an attractive price, it would be hard to justify opting for less.

For Microsoft’s partners in these countries, low-end devices face both the hurdle of cheapness and lack of brand recognition. A cheap Samsung is a bargain, a cheap device no one has heard of is a risk. For better or worse, flagships confer a halo on lower-end devices, and without that Halo, low-end Windows devices from unproven sources will have little effect.

While Microsoft’s staggered release of Windows 10 helps keep it in the news, more work is to be done. I have personally seen Windows Phone, Windows 10 Mobile and the Lumia 540 trend on twitter at various times this past week. If Microsoft can keep the buzz rolling enough to survive WWDC and I/O, then they will have all eyes on them come summer. Now will they over promise and under deliver? That is a question for another season.

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