There has been a great deal of confusion among carriers and retailers regarding Samsung’s (005930) strangely tepid Windows Phone support over the past few months. Samsung’s supposed flagship Windows Phone device, the ATIV S, debuted in Europe in December and sank without a trace. The ATIV was simply the Galaxy S III with very minor tweaks and the Windows Phone OS slapped on. It now looks like the ATIV S will never launch in India. The U.S. launch of the ATIV Odyssey at Verizon (VZ) has been a complete disaster; the phone received no marketing support and is not even listed among the top 20 contract models at Verizon Wireless.
It sure looks like Samsung gave only the most cursory and superficial support to its Windows Phone project, while ensuring the ATIV range would vanish without a trace just before the Galaxy S 4 launches. Of course, it is not hard to see why Samsung might feel obligated to offer fake support for Windows Phone. Its laptop and notebook division probably needs to stay on good terms with Microsoft (MSFT). But could there be something more sinister going on?
Samsung has been surprisingly vocal about the upcoming Tizen model it plans to launch this autumn, even risking the wrath of Google (GOOG). Samsung Vice President Lee Young Hee has publicly characterized the autumn Tizen model as a “high-end phone.” Samsung’s recent friction with Google has created speculation that Samsung may have started tiptoeing away from Android. Could the ATIV fake-out be part of Samsung’s plan to ensure a strong Tizen take-off during the third quarter this year?
If Samsung had made it clear last year it has no real intention to support Windows Phone platform, that could well have provoked Microsoft to launch its own smartphone line or possibly strengthen its relationship with ZTE or Huawei. But Microsoft may have been lulled into a false sense of security by Nokia’s (NOK) strong dedication and Samsung’s apparent backing. Now, HTC’s Windows Phone 8X and Windows Phone 8S phones are stumbling and Samsung’s ATIV range is on the rocks. Windows Phone’s future is effectively riding on the Lumia brand’s success. It’s all up to Nokia.
In one potential timeline, sales of both the Lumia line the new BlackBerry 10 range disappoint over the summer months, while Android’s global smartphone market share continues growing. In that timeline, Samsung’s new Tizen flagship phone arrives in late August, just in time for the back-to-school season, tempting mobile operators who feel extra jittery about how Android and Apple (AAPL) seem to have a stranglehold on the smartphone market.
If Samsung has saved some major technological advances for the Tizen phone while both Windows and BlackBerry lack autumn momentum, the gambit just might work.
The flip side is that if Windows Phone and/or BlackBerry (BBRY) can accelerate sales growth through the summer, the whole Tizen project could stumble out of the gate. It is not immediately clear how many minor operating systems the mobile carriers are willing to nourish. Either way, the autumn quarter is starting to look extra dramatic.