Microsoft to host unveiling of new Windows Phone handsets

No one expects Windows Phone to leap over Google Android and Apple iOS in a single bound, but industry analysts have been revising their projections for Windows Phone, now forecasting a dramatic surge in sales over the coming 12 months. Other data finds growing consumer awareness of and interest in the Microsoft platform, almost exactly a year after the first Windows Phone handsets became available on all major U.S. carriers. [Find here the full current lineup of handsets, including those formally debuting next week.]

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The invitation to press and analysts shows three AT&T-branded smartphones with the distinctive Windows Phone user interface. Only one carries a visible manufacturer's name: Samsung. AT&T announced in September it will offer new three new phones, running the latest Windows Phone 7.5 firmware:

* Samsung Focus S, with a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen, and a 1.4GHz processor.

* Samsung Focus Flash, with a 3.7-inch Super AMOLED screen, and 1.4GHz processor.

* HTC Titan, with a big 4.7-inch display, and a 1.5GHz processor.

Prices, with subsidies and rebates, will range from $50 to $200 with a two-year contract and a $15 minimum data plan.

T-Mobile this week began selling the previously disclosed HTC Radar 4G phone, with a 3.8-inch screen and 1GHz processor, for $100 with a two-year contract. This Windows Phone 7.5 device will run on the carrier's 14.4Mbps HSPA+ network, but not its fastest HSPA+ 42 network.

Though not designed as a high-end phone, the Radar shows a new awareness of the relationship between styling, performance and price for Microsoft's mobile platform. Reviewers have been generally favorable, often in spite of an admitted built-in skepticism.

The Radar has a mainly aluminum design that gives it the heft and solidity of a much more expensive, and expensively built, phone, reviewers agree. Its 1GHz Qualcomm processor and 8GB of storage seem paltry compared to the dual-core chips on some high-end rivals. Yet reviewers found the UI and apps very fluid and responsive. "In fact, we were quite happy with its responsiveness, especially when using Mango's built-in apps, which pop open with very little delay," writes Zachary Lutz, reviewing for Engadget. "Yes, its RAM is limited to 512MB, but even when playing music in the background and surfing the web with multiple tabs open, the UI happily kept pace and never left us waiting."

Microsoft's emphasis on creating a highly integrated user experience for Windows Phone is gaining respect and notice. In his Radar review for InformationWeek, George Ou observed: "After seeing how Facebook and Microsoft Live and Twitter updates are consolidated into 'People Hub' and how Facebook and Microsoft Live photos are consolidated into Photos, it made me wonder if I even need a Facebook or Twitter app. The message app consolidates all SMS text messages, Facebook chat, Live Messenger chat -- and I presume Skype chat in the future -- into one place. That seems to be a much cleaner and simpler alternative to the kind of app and icon sprawl I'm used to on my Android smartphone."

At Monday's event, it's possible that some of Microsoft's newest manufacturing partners such as Lenovo and ZTE may unveil their first phones for the OS. Images purporting to be of a Lenovo Windows Phone handset recently appeared on a Chinese website.

The market share data for Windows Phone is confused for several reasons. One reason is that none of the carriers, manufacturers, or Microsoft itself has released data on Windows Phone handset activations. Another reason is that most market data includes both Windows Phone and the older Windows Mobile platform.

Gartner's latest projections for 2011 suggest that Windows Phone may have been popular enough to stop the declining unit sales of Microsoft-powered smartphones; in 2010, Windows mobile device sales worldwide to end users totaled 12.4 million units; for 2011, Gartner is now projecting 12.8 million (about half of what Gartner was projecting in April 2011). Because the smartphone market as a whole has soared, Microsoft's market share dropped this year to 2.7% compared to 4.2% in 2010.

But next year, Gartner thinks Windows Phone devices could come close to 64 million units, a growth rate of nearly 400%. That's roughly equal to Gartner's forecast for RIM's BlackBerry smartphones, but of course far less than projected iOS device sales, at more than 128 million, and Android units of more than 300 million.

Strategy Analytics recently forecast that Microsoft will double its market share next year in Europe. "We forecast Microsoft Windows Phone to be the fastest growing major platform next year, doubling its share of the Western European smartphone market from 6% in 2011 to 12% in 2012," according to Tom Kang, a director with the technology research firm. "Increased distribution and marketing support from major hardware partners such as Nokia, Samsung and HTC will help to drive growth for Microsoft."

A bigger and savvier marketing push can help, but people have to be willing to buy Windows Phone handsets over better-know rivals. And there's some data that suggests they are.

The NPD Group's Connected Intelligence service released in September data from a consumer survey. One set of numbers confirmed that Android continues to account for about half of all smartphone purchases in the U.S. in the last three quarters.

As writer Ingrid Lunden noted, in covering this survey, "[H]ere's a curious fact: when all mobile users who either owned a smartphone or intended to purchase one were asked about what kinds of devices they want to buy next, 44 percent also said that they were considering Windows Phone 7 devices -- meaning that the door is open for significantly more sales of Windows Phone 7 devices, if Microsoft and OEMs (and specifically its newest and biggest OEM, Nokia) get their acts together."

Lunden noted the new data showed that 45% of consumers say they are "unaware" of the Windows Phone OS. Another data point: "And among the 50 percent of consumers who said they will be buying a smartphone [in the coming quarter], but didn't want to buy a Windows Phone, the biggest reason, accounting for 46 percent of respondents, was because they didn't know enough about the Windows Phone OS."

"Microsoft's ad campaign needs to focus on what is the value of this operating system," says Ramon Llama, senior research analyst for mobildevices at market research firm IDC. "Android and iOS can have a 'carousel' of homepages. Microsoft's UI with its Live Tiles and Hubs [of related apps and services] is a big change from those static icons."

Nokia, which has bet its future on Windows Phone, has launched an aggressive ad and marketing campaign designed to emphasize the unique qualities of the OS, as embodied in its first two Windows Phone handsets, the Lumia 710 and higher-end Lumia 800. The phones, and the campaign, were unveiled at the recent Nokia World conference in London.

It's not yet known if Nokia will be present at next Monday's event. At Nokia World, CEO Stephen Elop promised that a "portfolio" of Windows Phone devices would be unveiled for the American market in early 2012.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.



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This story, "Microsoft to host unveiling of new Windows Phone handsets" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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