It’s Windows Phone’s last at bat with two strikes left

The HTC One is one of Android’s best phones — it came second in our list of recommended flagship phones — and it is now available for Windows Phone. Windows Phone 8.1 is a mature platform and mostly on par with iOS and Android, and now it also has top notch hardware. The HTC One for Windows Phone is cheap too at $100 on contract in the US.

Unfortunately, it won’t be enough. This fair review from the Wall Street Journal sums it up best:

In the smartphone market, people tend to join in the biggest crowds. By the time Microsoft got its act together, the masses had chosen sides between iPhones and Android phones. For most, a switch would be like being uprooted from a comfortable home for a comfortable home across the street—it just isn’t worth it.

Microsoft probably has only two plays left before Windows Phone is dead for good. Maybe three: making Windows Phone free, utilizing apps from Windows 9 “Threshold” and waiting for web apps to become mainstream. But really it’s just two.

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Microsoft made Windows Phone free to attract more manufacturers to Windows Phones. Microsoft was successful — sorta — in that effort. As Paul Thurrott wrote:

Microsoft announced “zero dollar” (i.e. free) licensing for Windows Phone. And it dramatically modified the hardware maker requirements for the platform to make it easier for Android device makers (i.e. every single device maker on earth except Apple) to reuse their existing device platforms to make Windows Phone handsets.

Device makers responded in force. Fully 14 new device makers signed on to make Windows Phone handsets in the first quarter during which these changes were in place—and the same quarter in which IDC claims Windows Phone sales fell to 2.5 percent of the market. There are 11 new devices hitting the market now, or soon, and many more in time for the holidays.

Put simply, the impact of these new devices will not be felt until this quarter at the very earliest, but not really until the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015.

I qualify that potential success because many of these device markers make low cost phones serving different markets. BLU, Micromax, Prestigio, Yezz, Foxconn, Gionee, JSR, Karbonn, Lava, Longcheer, and ZTE…these aren’t exactly global, blue chip brands. It doesn’t mean they won’t sell in volume, but it would mean their customers aren’t typically the kind that Silicon Valley companies serve. Microsoft gaining traction in India will have limited impact on Europe.

So while having 14 partners is better than having none, I don’t know if this strategy will be game changing on a global scale.

Microsoft’s second play is to leverage the 92% market share they have in Windows PCs, which still ships over 75 million devices per quarter. Windows 8 may have a confusing dual nature, but the disaster is most Windows 8 users stayed in desktop and don’t use full-screen, Modern apps. Instead of a large userbase,  developers found a smaller, niche audience.

The Redmond company is racing to rectify this with Windows 9, which will finally allow the desktop to run Modern apps in the traditional windows interface. The hope is that developers will finally have access to a critical mass of users to gain traction; and produce the next big hit to establish Windows as a legitimate development platform.

Even if no hit emerges, the idea is once a developer has built an app for Windows, it’s easy to port that to Windows Phone. Windows 8 has split screen function where, instead of the typical landscape view, apps are displayed in a portrait interface. When split into thirds, the resulting ratio is quite close to the typical phone’s 9:16 ratio — so a good Windows app in split-screen mode could in theory be the Windows Phone version.

Microsoft is betting developers will take that final step. If enough follow this path, Microsoft will have gone a long way to alleviating the weak ecosystem problem. All they need is the next Instagram to be born out of this environment to make it a strength.

How likely is this strategy in succeeding? Windows 9 needs to be a success. Then the combined development environment has to be easy enough that programmers actually do include a Windows Phone version. Those apps then need to be of sufficient quality that users perceive Windows Phone as a thriving ecosystem; enough so that some Android and iOS users might feel envious about not having a Windows Phone.

There are a lot of ifs in this chain of scenarios. It’s not exactly a hail Mary, but it’s certainly a long shot.

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The third play is web apps — when apps are your weakness, a strong web environment diminishes the importance of native code. Microsoft can perhaps then win on other variables, like hardware, aesthetics, etc. But in this future, assuming web apps follow a standard (no easy guarantee), it doesn’t really matter what operating system people buy. So in that sense nobody loses and nobody wins.

However, I don’t consider this a valid play for Microsoft. They might be a bit better off in mobile, but by the same token will be far worse off in PCs.

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