Apple, Android NPD Numbers Suggest Way Forward for Windows Phone

Apple and Google Android are battling for smartphone market superiority. Microsoft's Windows Phone can learn something from each rival.

How can Windows Phone claim a bigger chunk of the smartphone market?

Since Microsoft released the first iteration of Windows Phone in late 2010, pundits and analysts of all stripes have picked over the best way to answer that question. For Microsoft itself, of course, any answer is more than purely academic: considering the amount spent to build and promote the platform, and lower-than-expected sales over the past few quarters, it needs a viable strategy for making Windows Phone a viable competitor to Google Android and Apple€™s iPhone.

Some new data from The NPD Group, although ostensibly about the latter two platforms, hints at a way forward for Windows Phone.

That data, issued as part of a Feb. 6 research report, described how Apple had passed Samsung and LG to become €œthe best-selling U.S. handset brand in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2011.€ Although Google Android took a larger share of smartphone unit sales as a whole, no individual Android smartphone managed to outpace any of the three different iPhone versions currently on the market.

Ross Rubin, executive director of Connected Intelligence for The NPD Group, wrote in a Feb. 6 note accompanying the data that customers were attracted to the iPhone 4S because of its €œfaster processor, improved camera and Siri speech-driven agent.€

But that€™s not to discount Android€™s own unique strengths. €œAndroid has been criticized for offering a more complex user experience than its competitors,€ he added, €œbut the company€™s wide carrier support and large app selection is appealing to new smartphone customers.€

Based on that analysis, how can Windows Phone carve its own niche? It involves a dual-headed strategy: a set of high-end devices that appeal to the same demographic lusting after the iPhone 4S, paired with a host of midrange devices offered via multiple carriers.

Microsoft and its manufacturing partners are already pursuing the beginnings of such a strategy. Nokia€™s Lumia 800 and 900 are a pair of new smartphones, for example, aimed at the market€™s higher end; the Finnish phone maker is accompanying those with the Lumia 710, meant to appeal to the broad middle range of consumers. Samsung is also marketing toward that range, with a Focus Flash on AT&T that retails for $49 with a two-year contract.

In conversations with eWEEK at this January€™s Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft executives made it clear that they would continue to push Windows Phones at a variety of price points. €œTop to bottom, we€™ll have the best story,€ said Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Windows Phone.

That leaves the question of whether, with such a strategy in place, Windows Phone can successfully dislodge the various Google Android manufacturers (some of whom also make Windows Phones) and Apple from their well-entrenched places within the market. Microsoft plans on devoting more marketing resources to Windows Phone; certain partners€”most notably Nokia, which is basically betting its future on the platform€”will contribute their own funds to the effort.

Even if Microsoft doesn€™t succeed in getting a significant number of customers to switch over to Windows Phone, another potential market awaits: people who€™ve never owned a smartphone before, and might want an easy-to-use, entry-level device along the lines of the Lumia 710 or Focus Flash. But convincing that demographic to go with Windows Phone will likewise require a sizable investment.

In other words, Microsoft might have a winning strategy in place, but it€™ll need to deploy all the marketing and logistical muscle at its disposal in order to start making serious headway against Google and Apple.

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