Can Microsoft's Windows Phone OS surge in market share?

Version 8.1 and two Nokia phones expected at Build conference; but are they enough to boost WP market share?

Microsoft on Wednesday is expected to launch Version 8.1 of its Windows Phone platform at its annual Build developers conference, and that move will be followed later in the day by a separate Nokia event where two new phones running the new OS are expected to be announced.

But it's unclear whether the update or related Microsoft moves later this year will have much of an effect on Windows Phone's prospects, especially since the platform still lags well behind Android and iOS in terms of mobile apps for users.

The global market share of Windows Phone hovers at just under 4%, a level that hasn't improved much since the first version, Windows Phone 7, was launched in October 2010. The predecessor to 8.1, Windows Phone 8.0, launched in October 2012.

Microsoft is still on track to finalize its purchase of Nokia's handset division for $7.2 billion by the end of April, but the value of that acquisition is being viewed skeptically by many.

The 8.1 update is expected to include features that analysts said won't be anything special when compared to market leaders Android and iOS. Rumored features include a new notification center and Cortana, the code name for Microsoft's new voice-activated digital assistant, which compares to Google Now and Apple's Siri.

A Windows Phone 8.1 Preview for Developers could be announced Wednesday, but won't be released until April 10, according to WPCentral.com.

Microsoft wouldn't comment on what will be announced at Build, which runs Wednesday through Friday in San Francisco.

A limited number of developers reportedly have already seen the 8.1 preview, some since February.

Microsoft is expected to announce Windows Phone 8.1 early Wednesday, and later that day Nokia is likely to launch the Lumia 630 and Lumia 930 smartphones -- both running Windows Phone 8.1 -- at a separate event.

Online rumors have persisted for weeks that Nokia could also unveil a smartphone code-named Goldfinger, which would have no physical buttons and would use sensors to detect gestures. Nokia hasn't commented. Gestures are already used in a limited fashion in some Android smartphones, although the technology's performance so far has been inconsistent.

Despite the pre-Build rumors, analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insight & Strategy said he expects Microsoft won't make any "earthshaking" announcements with Windows Phone. "I wish they would," he added. "They have a lot of work to do. Their fundamental problem is they lack the ability to capture the hearts and minds of consumers with unique content or apps or usage models."

Where are the apps?

Even with hardware and software improvements, including a digital assistant, Microsoft still will have trouble getting over its limited number of apps, which even average users need. "They've done a good with job with providing the 100 top apps, but the long tail [of many more apps] is still important to people."

The Windows Phone store had more than 240,000 apps in late February, with more than 500 added each day, according to a blog from Joe Belfiore, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Windows Phone.

By contrast, Google Play and Apple's App Store each have more than 1 million apps.

Windows Phone was late to the smartphone game, and that hasn't helped with app development. Moorhead gave the example of how Android and iPhone users grew accustomed to using a range of apps that aren't in the top 100 but are still deemed important.

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