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Microsoft's Windows Phone dilemma: Sell cheap phones or great cameras?

Mark Hachman | July 30, 2014
The camera's the thing—or is it? Rumored 'Tesla' and 'Superman' Windows Phones show two sides to Microsoft's strategy. Cheap phones may bring in some people, but the high-megapixel cameras remain the Lumia phones' primary selling point, and Microsoft shouldn't lose sight of that.

windows phone Lumia

A short time ago, I worried aloud that I had lost one of the Windows Phones that PCWorld keeps on hand for testing. A colleague snickered. "Why would anyone steal a Windows Phone?" she asked.

A good question--and I worry further that Microsoft's senior executives won't know how to answer that in a year or two.Today, I'm more convinced that Microsoft understands what it should be prioritizing on Windows Phone: the camera. I'm just not convinced they're going far enough.

Two weeks ago, Microsoft's Satya Nadella issued a memo that laid out the priorities of the company's smartphone division: Design phones that "align with Microsoft's strategic direction," he wrote. "To win in the higher price tiers, we will focus on breakthrough innovation that expresses and enlivens Microsoft's digital work and digital life experiences."

In the same memo, however, Nadella and Devices Group chief Stephen Elop set a priority of growing the Lumia market by slashing prices. "In the near term, we plan to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments, which are the fastest growing segments of the market, with Lumia," Elop wrote

Now news leaks out that Microsoft plans to release two phones, code-named "Tesla" and "Superman," in the near future. As The Verge reports, Tesla is described as a replacement to the Lumia 720, whose relatively wide, f/1.9 aperture helped make up for other deficiencies, such as the measly 512MB of RAM. "Superman" sports a 5-megapixel, front-facing "selfie" camera and a 4.7-inch display. Nokia Power User reports that Superman will debut in two versions: a 4.7-inch display with an 8MP rear camera, or a larger 5.0-inch display with a 13MP rear camera.

Today's flagship is tomorrow's feature phone
We don't know what else Microsoft has up its sleeve. But as any smartphone owner knows, phones age quickly. Continual updates to the operating system deliver new features, but those features can also weigh down the phone as it performs other basic tasks, like switching from app to app. Even a flagship smartphone from two years ago can feel slow and clunky today.

Over time, users can sour on what was formerly a beloved product. But certain features, such as cameras, can stand the test of time.

A few weeks ago, Microsoft held an event to introduce some of the press to the capabilities of its Lumia smartphones, with demo units of phones including the Lumia Icon or the Lumia 1020.

Tellingly, the phones were preloaded with the Instagram beta app, Nokia Camera, Photoshop Express, Vine, and other apps designed to show off the phone's camera--which, in conversation, Microsoft executives confirmed as one of the strengths of the Windows Phone platform. Last week, on vacation in Monterey, I made sure to bring a Windows Phone with me, as the Lumia 1020's 41MP camera simply takes better pictures (that I can crop without losing fidelity) than my Samsung Galaxy Note 3.


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