How Microsoft's Windows Phone Can Be Saved

Microsoft's Windows Phone owns a minuscule share of the smartphone market. To succeed, it might need to adopt some new tactics, such as more midmarket devices.

In a Dec. 26 posting on his personal blog, cek.log, former Microsoft employee and Windows Phone evangelist Charlie Kindel dissects what he sees as the reasons behind Windows Phone's failure to conquer more of the smartphone market, despite generally positive reviews. That posting immediately sparked discussion among analysts and pundits, including John Gruber and MG Siegler.

Unlike Apple's iPhone or Google Android, whose user interfaces offer grid-like screens of individual applications, Windows Phone concentrates Web content and applications into a set of subject-specific "Hubs" (such as "People"), which are represented graphically as a set of colorful tiles. Although Microsoft chose to carve its own path into the market, rather than slavishly imitate its rivals, the effort hasn't yet paid off; during his July 11 keynote speech at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference, CEO Steve Ballmer described Windows Phone's market presence as "very small."

Nonetheless, as 2011 inevitably becomes 2012, Microsoft is pushing hard to promote Windows Phone as a viable smartphone alternative. In addition to its wide-ranging "Mango" update, which baked hundreds of new tweaks and features into the platform, the company has signed agreements with Nokia and other entities to build new devices and market them aggressively. Nonetheless, Microsoft could take other steps that might help:

Relax the Minimum Specifications: When Windows Phone made its debut, back in the dark ages of 2010, Microsoft executives trumpeted how they would hold manufacturers to a set of rigid hardware requirements: three mechanical buttons, a 1GHz processor and a generously sized touch-screen. From there, a few manufacturers added their own tweaks. Dell's Venue Pro, for example, featured a physical QWERTY keyboard, and the HTC Surround included a slide-out speaker and a kickstand.

Imposing such requirements gives Microsoft more control over the Windows Phone ecosystem. But it could be alienating manufacturers, who enjoy giving the devices in their respective lines a brand-distinctive "look." In turn, that could prevent a manufacturer from creating the Windows Phone equivalent of Motorola's Droid line, which helped establish Android as a viable iPhone alternative.

There are signs that Microsoft is working more hand-in-hand with manufacturers, as opposed to dictating terms from above. Earlier in 2011, Microsoft signed a cross-licensing deal with Samsung that stipulated the manufacturer would help develop and market Windows Phones. And Nokia has boasted of its close collaboration with Microsoft on the platform. If that trend continues, manufacturers could become more aggressive about their Windows Phone efforts.

Work with the Carriers: In the week following the initial release of Windows Phone, eWEEK visited several AT&T stores in New York City, only to find a startling lack of promotion for a new platform from a major tech player. Windows Phone smartphones were buried among the other devices on display, while the stores' front banners seemed overwhelmingly devoted to either the iPhone or Android models.

Carriers represent the first point of contact for most consumers, and their advertising dollars can help sway massive audiences toward a particular platform. So far, it doesn't seem as if a lot of those dollars and promotional efforts have been directed toward Microsoft's offering. Granted, those carriers' strategic alliances and concerns may not wholly align with those of Redmond, especially when rival devices (such as the iPhone) are proven sellers; regardless, Microsoft needs to figure out a way to make those carriers more enthusiastic.

That Killer Feature: Apple's iPhone 4S is demonstrating that one killer feature-in its case, the Siri "personal digital assistant"-can determine whether someone is willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a new smartphone that otherwise isn't much different from the previous version. If Microsoft wants Windows Phone to establish an identity in the marketplace that is separate from that of iOS and Android, it would take more than a unique interface and a growing collection of applications: it will need a feature (or a collection of features) that provide a whole new world of functionality beyond that of its rivals.

More Midmarket Phones: Although it started out as primarily a higher-end smartphone platform, Windows Phone is making a broader play for the midmarket with Nokia's Lumia 710. Nokia, of course, needs to retake that market segment from Google Android, which has chewed into its once-dominating lead. But if Microsoft itself wants to make a substantial play for that same midmarket, it will need to enlist manufacturers beyond Nokia-particularly, in the U.S., where the Finnish phone maker maintains a negligible smartphone presence for the time being.

Follow Nicholas Kolakowski on Twitter