Microsoft drops smartphone specs, pricing

Redmond has lowered the specification bar for vendors looking to make a Windows Phone, which could appeal to more cost-conscious customers and first-time smartphone buyers.

Redmond has lowered the specification bar for vendors looking to make a Windows Phone, which could appeal to more cost-conscious customers and first-time smartphone buyers.


The Lumia 610, unveiled at Nokia's MWC 2012 press conference, was the first device to use Microsoft's new specs.
(Credit: Kent German/CNET)

Microsoft wants to be known as the people's smartphone company.

The software giant said on Monday that it had lowered the minimum requirements to build a Windows Phone, a move that allows vendors to construct less-expensive devices that can appeal to more budget-conscious customers and first-time smartphone buyers.

The shift represents an attempt to expand Microsoft's addressable market, vital to the company's bid to regain a measure of relevancy in the smartphone business. The company had previously maintained a strict list of specifications that vendors had to follow, which at the time made the devices fairly high-end. The move comes as Android's momentum in a variety of markets, high and low, continues to gain ground.

"Our strategy over time was to expand the range of price points," said Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Microsoft, in an interview with ZDNet Australia's sister site CNET.

Microsoft's move follows a similar tack Google took with Android. The internet search giant initially worked with some key vendors to create some high-end devices, including the initial G1 with HTC and the Motorola Droid. But over time, more vendors started to take Android and put it into more affordable devices, something Google encouraged with its open philosophy. Rather than hit one stratum, Android had become an operating system for everyone. The results are clear: Google is activating 850,000 Android devices each day.

Microsoft badly wants Android's reach. The first result of its move was the Nokia 610, which was announced at a press conference at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) trade show. The phone will retail for €189 (AU$235) without any subsidy.

Nokia intends to take this to a broad number of countries, said Kevin Shields, senior vice president of the Windows Phone program for Nokia. He said he believes the Nokia 610's affordable price makes it ideal for prepaid carriers, as well as traditional post-paid carriers.

"Early on in our discussions, it was clear we needed to bring this thing to a broad range of customers," Shields said in an interview. "What we're trying to do with Microsoft is foster the growth of the ecosystem."

Microsoft initially set a bar of a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and 384MB of RAM (most vendors used 512MB). When the phones came out in 2010, those were fairly ambitious specs, and the phones were all considered premium devices.

Of course, the initial run of smartphones didn't fare so well, and were ultimately discounted by the carriers anyway.

With yesterday's announcement, the company is allowing a slower Qualcomm processor and a minimal threshold of 256MB of RAM, which the Lumia 610 uses. Microsoft worked with Nokia and a number of partners on the lower-end portfolio. ZTE also announced a low-end Windows Phone during the show.

The move to more mass-market phone falls in line with a recent marketing campaign launched by Microsoft that pushes the experience and speed of the devices — even if it lacks the dual-core or quad-core chips of smartphones. The company is attempting to market Windows Phone as the ideal upgrade path for people buying a smartphone for the first time.

Microsoft's messaging flies in the face of those from other vendors, including LG and Huawei, which are quick to tout the specifications of their mobile devices. Others, such as HTC, have also moved away from the spec talk and focused more on the experience.

"Consumers are being told to care about something they don't understand," Sullivan said of the spec talk. He said that despite the lack of multiple processing cores, Windows Phones are faster at the tasks that people care about.

Sullivan was mum on when Microsoft would support multiple cores, but said the company would plan to jump on that technology once it finds a way to minimise the battery drain issue and show significant performance improvement.

"Philosophically, we're not opposed to multi-cores," he said.

The software giant also announced that Skype for Windows Phone Beta is now available, showing that its multibillion-dollar Skype acquisition may be starting to pay off.

Windows Phone 7 device owners can opt to download the software directly to their device or from the Marketplace on their PC.

Skype for Windows Phone Beta comes with features one might expect, including free audio and video calls to other Skype users over 3G, 4G or Wi-Fi, as well as the ability to call landlines or mobile phones for a fee. Group chats and one-to-one instant messaging are also available.

Skype has already been made available on Android, iOS and Symbian. It took last year's US$8.5 billion acquisition of Skype to bring the service to Microsoft's own mobile operating system. In addition to Windows Phone, Microsoft plans to integrate Skype into its many other platforms.

Microsoft says that Skype for Windows Phone Beta will work best on Nokia's Lumia 710 and 800 devices, as well as the HTC Titan and HTC Radar. The Samsung Focus S and Samsung Focus Flash have also been certified to work with the software.

Skype for Windows Phone Beta is only available on Windows Phone 7.5. Microsoft hopes to release the "gold" version of the software in April.


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