Editorial: Where Is Windows Phone Headed

The latest numbers show that Android continues to pick up steam among US smartphone users. Apple is still holding about a third of the market as well. What this means is that the other ‘smartphone’ operating systems are struggling to gain ground – and more than likely are losing it to the big 2. Google and Apple have been working hard to create an overall ‘experience’ for the user by creating services, advertising and the overall package to make their handsets more attractive to the end user. Sure, Apps are important, but really, across every platform, there’s an App for that, so it really should be a non-issue at this point. Our glance at the numbers revealed one big question, where is Windows Phone in all this?

In September of last year, Windows Phone held a 5.6% share of the market. The first burst above 5% since Windows Phone 7 came out. Just when all things looked rosie for the software giant, the December numbers showed a tumble to 4.7%.  While many would take a straight look at these numbers ad simply dismiss it as Windows Mobile is losing users, we have to look at the bigger picture and just say – more smartphones were sold that weren’t Windows Phones, so their market share decreased – even if they didn’t lose in terms of numbers of users.

That said, where does Windows Phone go from here, and is it really worth saving? The fact of the matter is, hardware selection for 150 million US users is 2 devices. Both Sprint and Verizon Wireless have one Windows Phone option. Both are well aged, out classed and almost boring compared to their newer “Droid” and Android powered counterparts. Motorola hit the CDMA market with 2 new Droid RAZR models in the last 60 days. Samsung is riding the Galaxy S2 wave as long as they can before having to announce the S3 which is already at the FCC for approval. The fact is, manufacturers are just not creating an S2 or Droid RAZR MAXX for Microsoft and it’s about time they did.

With the exception of the HTC Titan II and the Nokia 800, CES was practically a bust for Microsoft – and they all but admitted that themselves by announcing that they aren’t coming back. It’s not that CES wasn’t a good showcase for them, but how does an infant OS compete with 65″ 3D TV’s and cars that park themselves? Microsoft just didn’t stack up anymore. It’s the same song, different verse. The innovating has stopped – again. When Windows Phone 7 arrived, with all the fanfare, it looked amazing. We had a test drive with the HTC Surround and found it quite fun, simple to setup and use, but still reliant on a PC to work – just like the iPhone really needed a Mac to run well. The auto sync to SkyDrive features sure were nice, the hardware felt good, and overall, had our carrier had more than one option – and if that option was affordable, we might have made the change.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as the Arrive hadn’t yet arrived on Sprint and we didn’t want to spend the money to pull the plug on our amazing HTC Evo’s just to get back to a Microsoft product. So, we watched… waiting… hoping… that something would come soon to save us from the non-selection. Again, we were met with disappointment as we found nothing new, even for the GSM carriers, throughout most of the year. Then it hit us, unless you were on AT&T, you were pretty much stuck with one option… How could this be?

A quick survey of the 4 major US carrier shows Sprint and Verizon still offering only the Trophy and Arrive. T-Mobile has the HTC Radar and the new Nokia Lumia 710. AT&T has 5 different models currently for sale with 2 newer models on the way. Why on earth would Microsoft let this happen? The answer comes down to one thing… Technology.

AT&T is the only carrier currently using what is called “Quad-Band” technology. Virtually any phone you buy in the world will come with 4 radios in it – GSM 850/900/1800/1900. AT&T built out their network on these frequencies, and they are the same ones used in many parts of the world.T-Mobile built out their network on the AWS 1700/2100 frequencies, which are only used in the US. Sprint and Verizon (pre LTE) are using EV-DO technology for data which again, uses a radio only used here. Because Windows Phone is so new, and Microsoft wants to take over the world, not just the US, they haven’t pushed manufacturers for more options for those ‘step-child’ networks. Microsoft isn’t dumb, as a matter of fact, they are playing this waiting game perfectly in my mind.

Most people are probably scratching their heads and wondering what the heck I am going to say to justify this, but just read around a bit. AT&T is quite a ways from rolling out their LTE network, but since the existing world phones work with AT&T’s 3G network, who cares. T-Mobile doesn’t have a plan to go LTE yet, nor do they have a proper frequency to do it at this point. Verizon is having more troubles with their LTE/CDMA handoffs than they every anticipated – so let’s not drop a device there yet either. Finally, Microsoft knew that WiMAX was a short term solution for Sprint. If they had released a device with a WiMAX radio in it, they were dooming it to a 6 month sales life – at best.

Microsoft is waiting out this fiasco with their partners and getting ready to drop a cross carrier, monster phone that will be the “Zune Phone” that everyone was hoping for from day one. It will happen, and when it does, it will be amazing. LTE equipped, VoLTE capable, Skype enabled and ready for world travel out of the box. The carriers will jump on board when Microsoft brings this beast to them and they will pick up 10% of the market by the end of 2012 to the beginning 2013. They won’t have a big CES thing, because they want the manufacturers to do the work for them.

The big shows, the craziness of network expansion and the unknown future seem to put Windows Phone in a precarious spot. We think this is sheer brilliance on Microsoft’s part, not putting their eggs in to a single technology basket yet. It will come though, and sooner than later if the carriers develop a solid plan going forward. If we had to guess, in the next 6 months we will see it… Something like a Samsung designed 1.5Ghz dual-core 4″ monster with a 12MP camera, non-replaceable 3500mAH battery and a quad-band LTE radio in it. That’s just a guess though, so keep watching.

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