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For Microsoft, the only way out of its big Windows Phone mess is to follow Apple

Mark Hachman | July 9, 2015
Dumping its value phones and focusing on flagships might work, but only if there's a viable app ecosystem, too.

"I honestly expected some of this, and it is likely, economically, a tough, but necessary choice," Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said in an email. "It seems that there hasn't been a cohesive strategy for Lumia Windows Phones to date in terms of branding, marquee devices, or device evolution."

Miller said he sees Lumia's evolution unfolding like this: Microsoft will try to sell business customers on Office 365 and its Enterprise Mobility Suite, while Microsoft will abandon the low end of the market and focus on premium devices. Microsoft will then encourage budget consumers to adopt Skype, Outlook.com, and OneDrive on other devices to lure them into the Microsoft ecosystem. 

The Apple model: Do it right, do it yourself

Ideally, Microsoft's own first-party Lumia phones would stand as a Surface of sorts for the phone market. Nadella has been remarkably consistent with its message: He wants Microsoft to create new categories of devices that others can learn from, emulate, and follow into the market. Today, we're seeing a number of well-built two-in-one PCs or ultrabooks that are just a bit more rugged than the Surface Pro 3.

But Microsoft's Surface model also assumes two conditions that the Windows Phone market lacks: a coterie of hardware makers trained to follow Microsoft's lead, and a healthy app ecosystem. Microsoft hoped to solve the first problem by seeding budget phones in the U.S. and abroad, boosting sales and helping to make the case that a viable market existed. Its more recent plan to bring iOS and Android apps to the Windows platform was designed to convince software developers that they could make money from Windows, too.

Hopefully, Nadella's memo shows that its budget phone strategy was a mistake. Apple devotees can certainly tell you what components Apple built into the iPhone 6, but even the most ardent Windows Phone fanboy would be hard-pressed to differentiate one Lumia budget phone from another.

Apple has shown us that a phone maker doesn't need dozens of unremarkable budget phones. Instead, it marks down the price of yesterday's flagship. Neither does it depend upon a number of hardware partners eager to flood the market with their own knockoffs. 

Another case for the Surface phone

I would argue that the core experience of a Windows Phone is as vibrant as anything Apple makes. But Microsoft needs to develop a flagship phone that can embody it. So far, something like the Surface phone has been merely a concept--but maybe it truly needs to become a reality.

This fall, Microsoft needs to proudly unveil Windows 10 Mobile and show how that its new operating system creates the best business phone on the market today. It needs to show how the new universal Office apps let users edit and even create documents on the road. And if, just if, they lose everything except their Windows phone, they can replace their Windows PC with a Windows 10 phone running Continuum. Those Windows 10 phones should be well-designed, desirable devices that will attract new customers and deepen the ties with Windows faithfuls.

 

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