How Microsoft Can Gain Traction in the Smartphone Wars

With the recent departure of Stephen Elop from Microsoft, there have been a number of articles speculating that this means 3 things:

1. No new Microsoft flagship phone is forthcoming.
2. Microsoft’s focus has shifted to iOS and Android apps.
3. Microsoft is existing the smartphone market altogether by killing Lumia.

As I sit here with my old iPhone 4s thinking about this, I am greatly discouraged. I certainly don’t believe this is the case. While Microsoft has been making waves across Europe and in other regions with Windows Phone, can it gain traction in the US?

Let’s look at ways Microsoft could drop some bombs in the Smartphone Wars.

You Can’t Spell ‘Apple’ without ‘App’
Apple revolutionized the mobile industry with the introduction of apps and created a massive app industry. Android followed suit and has had similar success. Microsoft has been floundering in this space though for years on its own platform. Many developers, frustrated with the lack of support from businesses (Sonos, for example) have developed their own unsupported apps to fill the gap (Phonos, for example).

While Microsoft has a renewed focus in their apps on iOS and Android, this is more a reflection of Microsoft’s realization that not everyone uses their platforms. Better to be as ubiquitous as possible than completely shut out of a market due to your own stubbornness.

Microsoft’s announcements around the Universal App Platform, Continuum and their code portability options from iOS and Android are a major shift for the company. They are hoping they can not only leverage the existing Windows application sets, but that they can allow developers to port existing code into Windows easier than ever before.

If there’s money to be made, those business’ developers may not have much of a say in where their code goes. Soon we will find out if developers’ interest in a platform outweighs revenue. Microsoft is pinning a lot on this hope.

The Phone Market is More Volatile than It Looks
I have owned Windows, Android and iOS phones at various times over the last 15 years. I’m certainly not married to a particular platform. I’ve switched around and it’s partly due to the nature of the mobile market. Apple and Android may be building their own demise.

With Apple, frequent release cycles ensure consumers are constantly upgrading their hardware. Some carriers even allow you to upgrade for a reduced cost mid-cycle because phones are disposable now. As a result, at least every 2 years, you have the opportunity to revisit your decision to commit to a mobile hardware platform and pick something new. Microsoft can take advantage of this by offering some amazing hardware as well as high performing, low cost phones. Apple will never compete in the low cost space.

For Android, they have the same risk, but one more as well. Their platform is too fragmented. Every hardware provider for Android overlays a unique experience, making it even easier to switch to a new mobile platform, hardware or software. Since the Android platform has the majority market share, Microsoft could easily insert itself here.

Besides inserting itself into the refresh cycle, Microsoft has the opportunity to streamline the mobile interface, as Apple does. This allows for a consistent experience across platforms and will reduce the complexity of the platform, relying on hardware providers to use the hardware as a differentiator. Microsoft can also push out updates across all devices quicker, regardless of hardware vendors or carrier.

And Speaking of Hardware and Carriers
The one mistake Microsoft absolutely cannot make is to have their flagship phone (hopefully phones) exclusive to a particular carrier. This will absolutely kill the platform since it fighting so hard to gain market share. Apple could afford to do this with AT&T at the start of the iPhone, but anyone attempting to penetrate needs to have a strong showing across carriers.

If Microsoft chooses to not release a flagship hardware device, it will be a strong signal to the world that they are not serious about growing mobile outside of emerging markets. They must have a flagship.

Next Steps for Microsoft
The next steps for Microsoft are crucial. With the news from Redmond sparse – any new hardware announcement from Apple, who clearly has a strong supply and distribution channel in place, could derail the best laid plans. Android can’t really disrupt Microsoft, but a well timed Google phone could.

Microsoft needs to buckle down, get Windows 10 out and show Windows 10 mobile on a flagship device in order to be taken seriously by consumers. If they come out with a non-committal showing and more low end phones, all hope is lost.