Microsoft on WP8, Build 2013 and how it will win the cheap phone wars
25th May 2013 | 00:26
Look for a march of lower-priced Lumias
Microsoft skipped out on making major announcements at this year's CTIA, but in a catacomb of meeting rooms beneath the main show floor, Senior Marketing Manager Greg Sullivan made sure the company and its Windows Phone 8 weren't forgotten.
Sullivan's energy about WP8 was palpable; he quickly pointed to IDC figures that show Windows Phone has overtaken BlackBerry for the third spot in the mobile OS race. It's still far beyond Android and iOS, but that did nothing to dampen Sullivan's spirits.
"There's still room to go to get to the top two, but it's one of the dimensions in momentum we're seeing around the platform," he said.
First things were first, however. With no big news at CTIA, we wanted to know why we should pay attention to the mobile operating system during Build 2013, Microsoft's major developer conference taking place in just over a month.
"There will be some talk about [Windows Phone 8] from an app platform standpoint," Sullivan said coyly, noting that Microsoft is taking a different approach to how it addresses updates and issues around the platform in general.
"We used to be in the business of telling you about the next version a year in advance. We're doing less of that, partly because what we have in the market today competes very, very favorably and we feel great about it. So we don't feel like we need to promise what's coming next year. Even to developers, we'll say, 'Let's focus on what we have today because it's one of the best out there.'"
Sullivan steered away from other specifics, but as the reveal of Windows 8.1 draws nearer, expectations are that an update known as Windows Phone Blue (or Windows Phone 8.1) is also on the horizon.
He explained that as the core of Windows is updated, the Windows Phone engineering team builds out the services that go along with their particular platform.
"[Windows Phone] can have lots of updates that don't necessarily relate to the core, but when that core gets updated, we'll take that, and we'll continue to be in alignment with them."
Those who followed this week's Xbox One announcement may have noticed the new console's UI reflects Microsoft's hallmark Metro design, and picked up that there's a kernel of Windows within the system's architecture.
Xbox of course isn't alone among Microsoft's products in having both. With a unified look and a shared core, Sullivan indicated there's more that can be done to mesh the company's products and services with one another.
"We had a group of designers that collaborate across the whole company that thought long and hard about what our point of view is and what are our principles around design. They relate to the interface that first showed up in Windows Phone but is now in Xbox and Windows Phone 8 and web services.
"So you're seeing this consistency on the user experience level, and you're seeing increasingly a compatibility across the app level and a leveraging of the tools and the code that developers can use to target the range of our platforms.
"We're tying our stuff together up and down the stack and across the elements that nobody else is able to, and that's going to be a competitive advantage more and more as we go along."
On the cheap
In the last few weeks, Nokia has debuted two new phones - the Lumia 925 and Lumia 928 - while putting the Lumia 521 up for sale directly on T-Mobile (it's been sold through HSN and Wal-mart already). The 521 is the U.S. variant of the globally available Lumia 520.
Numerically confusing names aside, with a rush of new phones, might Microsoft be concerned in tipping into over saturation? No, said Sullivan.
"We think it's the right approach. One of the things that gets people and the leading edge influencers that really know all the details about smartphone platforms excited about a platform is a steady and frequent cadence of new devices for that platform.
"We see that across the board. Apple is kind of unique there, I would argue, but certainly in the Android space, this kind of frequent delivery of new devices is one of the things that keeps the buzz and excitement around the platform. It's a benefit.
"Nokia has shown that its ability to offer a broad portfolio of devices with a lot of choice is a good thing for customers. And now, combined with our software and the consistency of the experience across that whole range, it's a really powerful selling point. There's a strong argument when we're trying to compete against these guys."
"These guys" in our conversation centered on Android specifically in the feature phone space, a market Microsoft wants to attack with devices like the Lumia 521, which sells for $129 (around UK£85, AU$133) at Wal-mart, $149.95 (around UK£99, AU$155.35) through HSN and now a $29.99 (around UK£19, AU$31.06) down payment at T-Mobile.
"One of the things that's a trend in the industry we're seeing is not just the high-end super phones that get a lot of attention," Sullivan said. "Roughly a third of smartphone purchases in the U.S. in the first quarter of this year were pre-paid. That's a significant increase from the previous year where it was about 21 percent. That dynamic has been true outside of the U.S. where the subsidized model is not as prevalent, but it's increasingly happening in the U.S."
Forty-eight percent of stateside phone owners have feature handsets, Sullivan said, a figure that has Microsoft licking its chops.
Smartphones shipments are expected to outstrip feature phones worldwide this year, according to predictions from display market research and consulting firm NPD DisplaySearch, but MS sees the non-smartphone sector as enough of a reason to pump out more non-high-end devices.
"Yes," Sullivan answered to a should-we-expect-other-cheap-phones question. "The way we think about it is we're not going to solely focus on that segment...but given that this is where a lot of the volume is, and this is a trend that's increasing in the U.S., which is of course a key market that leads from a perception stand point in mobile. Yeah, we'll have more."
Nokia - which Sullivan referred to as a "unique partner" due to its full commitment to the Windows Phone platform - lost out on the feature phone sales in the first quarter of 2013 thanks to cheap Android devices, according to figures from Forbes.
A dedicated push by Microsoft and the phone maker could turn the tables, however. According to a statement sent to TechRadar by Microsoft, Lumia 521 sales are similar to those of the Lumia 520 - "the fastest selling Windows Phone mid-tier device ever" - though we didn't receive any figures.
"There are so many sacrifices you have to make on an affordable Android phone relative to a $129 Windows Phone.
"Once we expand the reach of this kind of offering, it's so dramatically better. Frankly, I was pleased with how bad the experience on affordable Android phones [was], because ours is so great. If people are willing to settle for two-and-a-half-year old software that won't get updated, boy we have a real opportunity to show that they don't have to settle. We can raise people's expectations of what a $129 smartphone can do."