The latest numbers from IDC show that Windows Phone is still having a tough time gaining traction, as the operating system was found on just 3.2% of all smartphones shipped in the first quarter of 2013. And things could look even worse for Microsoft in the second quarter since Windows Phone devices will have to go toe-to-toe with heavyweight flagships being rolled out by both Samsung and HTC, as well as the low-cost BlackBerry Q5 that BlackBerry is aggressively pushing into emerging markets. In fact, the only company that’s really devoting a lot of resources toward manufacturing and publicizing Windows Phone devices is Nokia, which really has no choice since it has chosen Windows Phone as its exclusive operating system.
Let’s think for a minute about some of the big smartphone launches we’ve seen over the last six months. HTC has seemingly put all its hopes on the HTC One, a finely crafted smartphone that combines top-notch design with an improved user interface. Then there’s the ubiquitous Galaxy S4, which Samsung’s hyperbolic promotional machine has actually described as “a precious stone glittering in the dark or countless stars sparkling in the night sky.” And finally there’s the LG Optimus G and the Sony Xperia Z, two smartphones that haven’t gotten as much hype as the HTC and Samsung offerings but have nonetheless sold respectably and have kept both companies on the map as smartphone vendors.
What do these devices all have in common, you ask? They all run Android. Other than Nokia and its Lumia line, can you recall a manufacturer devoting time and money to pushing Windows Phone as a platform? The closest thing we’ve seen is the HTC Windows Phone 8X, but even that device got quickly overshadowed by all the hype surrounding other phones at the time.
The reasons that vendors are betting on Android for the time being are no mystery. The most obvious is that the platform is free to use. Another is that it gives companies a lot more freedom to customize it to their liking and to emphasize their own unique offerings, even if it means putting Google’s services more on the back burner. It’s hard to imagine Microsoft giving Amazon the freedom to fork Windows Phone to create its own Kindle smartphone line, for instance.
So what is Microsoft to do? It seems that the most obvious answer would be to create its own device and put serious money behind promoting it to drive up sales in the platform and get OEMs more interested. But as we saw with the Surface, making its own hardware to showcase its software is no guarantee of success. Microsoft could alternatively slash its licensing fees for the platform or give OEMs more freedom to customize it on their own devices. But even this might not work since Microsoft would still be competing with Google on its own turf.
One thing is clear: Microsoft likely can’t just rely on Nokia to do all the heavy lifting if it ever wants to be more than an also-ran in the smartphone wars.