Will Windows Phone's bumpy start eventually lead to success?

How long will it really take for Microsoft to grab even ten percent of the worldwide smartphone market?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

I’m taking a couple weeks off before the busiest part of Microsoft’s 2012 kicks into full gear. But never fear: The Microsoft watching will go on while I’m gone. I’ve asked a few illustrious members of the worldwide Microsoft community to share their insights via guest posts on a variety of topics — from Windows Phone, to Hyper-V. Today’s entry is all about Windows Phone and is authored by Makram Daou.

If there’s one thing for which Microsoft has been criticized lately, it is its current market presence in the mobile market.

Everybody who has ever used a Windows Phone 7 handset will tell you that the best way to sell one is to actually handle one. This is, unfortunately, a major problem for Microsoft and its OEM partners, which have been historically inept at properly marketing any of the company’s consumer products besides the Xbox-branded hardware and services.

There’s no denying that Windows Phone 7, in its current state (7.5/Tango) still lacks features and flexibility compared to competing platforms like iOS and Android. But I can assure you that for the vast majority of the current users and potential future owners, what is currently offered is simply enough. People must realize that what is often written (good or bad) on blogs and forums all over the web doesn’t really matter in the long run.

I’ve been using Windows Phone 7 handsets ever since the platform launched back in Q4 2010 and can finally recommend it as a viable alternative to competing offerings now that it has matured. Prior to the Mango update late last year, Windows Phone 7 was simply nothing more than a novelty, serving Microsoft as a stopgap until the operating system was reasonably feature-complete one year later. (Lack of copy/paste anyone? Total PR nightmare.)

Yes, some still unfavorably compare Windows Phone 7 handsets against iOS or Android devices, citing hardware specifications that are no longer in the same league.But does it really matter? Seriously?

I was probably the first person to discuss this matter more than 14 months ago because I knew that this would become a PR/marketing issue later on. I can assure you (if you haven’t used a Windows Phone handset yet) that Windows Phone’s user experience is in no way, shape or form, being hurt by the fact that the devices are powered by two generations-old system-on-a-chip processors, compared to what's powering the current high end iOS or Android devices.

Higher-speed Windows Phones are just around the corner (alongside Windows Phone 8), but as of right now, what is available is simply enough for 99 percent of the population. I do want higher resolution screens and 1080P video recording (the two main complains that are brought up in most reviews), but I’m also satisfied that my Nokia Lumia 800 handset shoots 720P videos at a higher bit-rate than most competing handsets shoot at 1080P, resulting in a higher quality video even if the resolution is lower.

Windows Phone's current market share is obviously nearly non-existent, but things are moving fast and will move even faster in the coming months. Nokia has been making tremendous efforts to get their handsets out on the market and most importantly support them when faced with software and hardware issues. The Finnish handset maker is also constantly shipping out new applications and services for its Lumia line of handsets, while also pushing the platform forward by signing partnerships with software developers. Those partnerships will benefit to the whole ecosystem, not just Nokia. Microsoft has finally found (and funded) a serious mobile partner that is willing to do anything for the success of the platform.

But more than anything else, marketing will still be the key to Windows Phone’s success. This push will take years, but this doesn’t really matter because Microsoft will continue to fund its smartphone endeavor until it either dominates or owns a major part of the market -- just as the company has done in the past with the Xbox and most of its other products.

Windows Phone is, in my opinion, as critically important as Windows 8 for Microsoft’s longer term business. A simple look at the company’s careers portal shows there are more than 100 jobs openings in the Windows Phone division right now compared to “only” 55 for the Windows division, 47 for Azure and 71 for Xbox.  Redmond is investing seriously in Windows Phone and won’t stop any time soon.

So what about the pending launch of Windows Phone 8 and Microsoft's soon-to-be-publicized decision as to whether it will allow current handsets to receive the OS update or not? If Microsoft decides to make Windows Phone 8 exclusive to future handsets only, things will definitely get ugly and result in a marketing nightmare that could really set back the platform's growth in the short term. Microsoft will have to hire some marketing geniuses to spin this one because Nokia’s reputation will also be on the line, given the current gigantic push behind the Lumia handsets worldwide and especially in the US with the Lumia 900.

From a technical standpoint, there shouldn’t be anything preventing at least the second generation handsets (with 512MB of RAM) from getting Windows Phone 8. If the Lumias (800,710,900),HTC Titans, Radar and Samsung Focus S/W  get the much anticipated update, this should allow Microsoft to lessen the potential backlash if the company decides against allowing all existing Windows Phones to receive the Windows Phone 8 OS. Those handsets -- especially the Lumias-- make up the majority of the current Windows Phone user base, and first-generation device owners will be arriving at the end of their two-year carriers contract anyway.

(What doesn’t really make any sense to me is what's behind the recent announcement and release of several low-end Windows Phone 7.5 handsets like the Samsung Focus 2, Omnia M and Lumia 610 NFC. Unless WP8 comes to all handsets featuring an Adreno 205 GPU, there’s going to be a serious problem here. Why would anybody buy those handsets associated with a two-year contract knowing that Apollo, a k a, the Windows Phone 8 OS, will be out in six months or so, but they may not be able to upgrade to it?)

I personally wouldn’t rule out a simple Windows Phone 7.X update (with the same Windows Embedded Compact kernel) that would add some of the most important Windows Phone 8 user-experience features to the current Windows Phone 7 devices.  But if that happens, fragmentation, here we come: Windows Phone 7.X applications will all be forward compatible with Windows Phone 8 but not the other way around.

At the end of the day, nobody should count on Microsoft being out of the running. The journey to Windows Phone’s success will be a long and bumpy one, but it has just begun. How long will it take to for Microsoft to grab ten percent of the worldwide smartphone market? Nobody knows yet, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen in 2013.

Consumers should be happy to have a choice between iOS, Android and Windows Phone. If you already own a Windows Phone handset, then all I can say is enjoy it for what it is: An awesome mobile user experience. You will get what you paid for.

Makram Daou, the guy behind the MobileTechWorld blog, has been following the tech industry for more than 13 years --  starting with the 3D graphics/GPU side of things early on, and later the mobile/smartphone landscape. His career path allowed him to meet many people actually working on the latest and greatest tech throughout the years, thus providing insight on how things work from the inside behind the PR firewalls. You can follow him on Twitter at @mobiletechworld.

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