That's amore: What's behind Italy's love affair with Windows Phone – and can it last?

Italy has become one of the first major markets where Windows Phone is outselling iOS. Can the love affair last?
Written by Raffaele Mastrolonardo, Contributor
The Lumia 521, one of the lower-end handsets helping Nokia's sales. Image: CNET

Old passions never die. If you want proof, look at Italy, which has just become the first big European market where Windows Phone has overtaken iOS in terms of smartphones sales. The shift happened, according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, in the three months ending 30 September with the ancient passion between Italians and Nokia possibly having a role in it.

During that time, the Microsoft OS accounted for 13.7 percent of sales in Italy, a solid second position behind the all-conquering Android (71.6 percent) and ahead of iOS which slipped to third with 10.2 percent. That’s an event Steve Ballmer — who visited Italy a few days ago — might want to remember as a prima volta.

"This is the first time in the EU5 that Windows held a larger share than iOS," Dominic Sunnebo, global consumer insight director of Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, told ZDNet.

The old love affair between Italians and the Nordic brand might well being play a part in the rise of Windows Phone here. "Italy has traditionally been a very strong market for Nokia and there are still many Italians with Nokia devices —sentiment for the brand remains high," Sunnebo said.

If money cannot buy love, sometimes it can help re-awaken it. Nokia's more aggressive strategy in the country might have indeed revived the passion, with mid-tier devices coming out of Finland seducing the recession-ridden Mediterranean peninsula again.

"Now that Nokia is offering the Lumia 520 and 620 at competitive prices, sales are picking up. 28 percent of Italians still own a Nokia phone (feature or smart), which provides an excellent base targeting their Lumia range."

According to Sunnebo, in the third quarter of 2013 the average price paid for an iOS handset (including carrier subsidies) in Italy was €432, compared to €249 for Android and €209 for Windows Phone.

That money and tradition are the main suspects for the Windows Phone exploit is confirmed by other observers who describe Italian consumers as increasingly careful when deciding whether to buy smartphones.

"Lumia devices are a good fit for markets where users look for bargains. Particularly, as the case in Italy, when the trend-setters and the wealthy already own their top-of-the-range smartphones," Cristoforo Morandini, director of consultancy Between, told ZDNet.

"The Italian smartphone market is almost saturated, with all those who wanted a full-fledged device having already gotten it," Daniela Rao, telecommunications research director at IDC Italia, confirmed.

This means the sales focus for manufacturers has moved to lower segments of users with mobile carriers increasingly playing a role. "The distribution carried out by operators has a huge impact. And right now carriers are trying to lure customers, particularly youngsters, into data plans heavily subsidising mid and low-end devices," she said.

This scenario seems to benefit Android, which according to Kantar, gained 10.4 percent year on year in the third quarter, and Windows Phone (up 2.9 percent). Apple, meanwhile, declined by four percent.

A sustainable trend?

So no doubt former Nokia CEO and now Microsoft heir apparent Stephen Elop and Steve Ballmer have a reason to hold Italy dear, but will Windows Phone relative success in 'the Boot' prove to be long-lasting? That's hard to tell.

Some contingent factors might have contributed to the overtaking of iOS that won’t be here next quarter: "It's maybe a fact less relevant than others but the period of the year in which the data were collected had an impact: Q3 has its own trends, Q4 has others which might be more favorable to iOS," Morandini said, referring to the Christmas shopping season which could boost sales of Cupertino's high-end devices.

The view is shared by Sunnebo who sees Apple reclaiming the second spot back some time soon despite Nokia and Windows Phone keeping the momentum.

"Italy has been a strong performer for Nokia for some time (since the start of 2013), however this changeover in ranking is more as a result of iOS is losing share than Windows gaining share. With full 5s and 5c sales, I would expect this trend to reverse in Q413."

When it comes to smartphone OSes, finding out whether true love lasts is just a matter of one more quarter.

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