What is Microsoft’s future in the mobile space? It’s a question that’s generated more than a few column inches over recent years. Now with Redmond agreeing to sell the feature phone division to Foxconn and licence the Nokia name, things have perhaps started to get a little clearer.
First, the bad news. IDC is predicting Windows Phone’s market share for 2016 will stand at just 1.2% this year – that’s down from 2% last year, 2.7% the previous year, and 3.3% in 2013. The firm is clearly not getting any OEMs on board for future devices anytime soon, and there was no mention of new Lumias in the Foxconn announcement – just that it would support current devices. From this – and speaking to a few experts for an upcoming feature – I think the smart money’s on a Surface handset.
Surface has done pretty well in the tablet/laptop space – albeit after a few iterations. And a high-end Surface handset would show off the best features of Windows 10 Mobile, as Microsoft finally harmonises its OS across all platforms. It could have crack at competing with the Samsung Galaxy range and potentially the iPhone. Whether this is enough to prop up Microsoft’s mobile hardware business is unsure, however, and more job cuts could be on the way.
A Surface smartphone could appeal in particular to business executives and the like, according to IDC analyst Susana Santos. “It’s a strategy that makes sense, but it takes time. It’s too early to say if it’ll work or not. It certainly won’t help with its volumes. These devices are more expensive and not as easy to sell,” she told me.
With the business market set to rise only to 20% of the global smartphone market, according to IDC, this is also a concern if Microsoft can’t persuade those BYOD consumer/employees to migrate away from their iOS or Android handsets. It’s been said many times before, but Microsoft is in many ways still a victim of its lack of vision a decade ago, which let Apple and Google steal the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers.
And what of its chances of getting those sought-after OEMs on board?
“Of all companies, Microsoft knows the value of a developer and application ecosystems, but has been poor to drive this agenda in the mobile realm. I’d expect it to continue with Windows phone, but play mostly in the higher-end,” Quocirca’s Rob Bamforth told me by email. “The words it has used seem to indicate an interest in mobile computing devices, with telephony capabilities, rather than emphasis on ‘handsets’, so I think that means higher-end pricing and positioning – and perhaps a closer connection to Lync/Skype for Business and Skype Meeting. Perhaps we might be looking for a Skype Surface.”
The question is whether Redmond can maximise its IP and engineering talent in this space, “gluing the bits together in a way that Apple seems to mange elsewhere”, according to Bamforth. If it can, it’ll be the greatest comeback in the history of computing.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote how Asia would be the key to Microsoft’s success with its soon to be acquired handset business and Windows Phone. Well, new IDC stats out this week confirmed the importance to Redmond of one of Asia’s biggest markets, India, but also that it may struggle without the Nokia brand.
India is now rated by many analysts as the fastest growing smartphone market in the world.
The numbers speak for themselves. The largest democracy on the planet has a population of over 1.3 billion but smartphone penetration of only around 10 per cent – in this it’s some way even behind China and has huge growth potential.
The question is who’s going to capitalise? Well, at the moment it’s the same old story of cheap, local Android handset providers. In India Karbonn and Micromax are two of the most prominent.
Windows Phone was a surprise second place in Q2, however, with a market share of 5.3 per cent, according to IDC. Granted, this is way behind Android’s 90+ per cent, but still above iOS and BlackBerry and remember that percentages translate into 500,000+ units.
The key to success going forward, however, will be how it handles the Lumia, according to IDC analyst Kiranjeet Kaur.
She told me that although Nokia sells the Lumia 520, 620, 625, 720, 820, 920 and 925 in India it has been the 520’s low price point of around Rs 10,000 (£100) which has made it popular.
Microsoft can’t rely on the Lumia range to continue attracting buyers in the future though, because the all important Nokia brand will soon be removed.
“People buy the Lumia because they’ve had an association with Nokia for many years and see it as a good brand,” she said. “But if the [acquisition] deal goes through in the next few months I’m not sure how quickly Microsoft can do the rebranding.”
Time will tell whether this makes a big difference. It has to be said that Nokia was far from coasting in India. Despite winning the country’s Brand Trust Report for the third year in a row in February, it has been mired by tax problems and slowing sales.
Still, India remains Nokia’s second largest market after China, according to IDC, so the next 12 months will be a key test of whether Microsoft can continue the momentum and take on the likes of HTC and Samsung in the mid-range as well as stealing a bit of share from domestic players at the lower end.
It will be an uphill task.
It was Microsoft and Nokia’s big week this week and I’m sure the two will be hoping to hog the headlines going forward as much as they did over the past seven days. Now some might have unkindly described the alliance as “the sounds of two garbage trucks colliding”, but I’ve been getting the low down on why the deal should matter to APAC, or more realistically, why APAC should matter to Microsoft.
Let’s get one thing straight, APAC is essential to Microsoft’s future success in the smartphone space, not just because it has the world’s largest and fastest growing market – China and India respectively – but because Nokia has a really good legacy footprint there thanks to its feature phone biz.
The problem for Redmond, however, is that we’re not talking about feature phones any more, but smartphones. These markets are increasingly demanding smartphones, albeit low-end handsets, not feature phones. It’s why local players like Huawei, ZTE, Micromax and others are growing at such speed.
Nokia’s stock is greatest in India, where it has been voted most trusted brand for two years in a row, despite on-going tax problems with the authorities. Yet according to IDC’s Melissa Chau its relationship with operators isn’t particularly great anymore, so to large extent Microsoft is going to have to start from scratch here.
Building a budget Lumia will be vital and Chau told me Microsoft could do two things to help achieve this:
- Remove licensing charges – at the moment it’s built into the cost of the phone – which would wipe about $10 off per handset
- Use its combined internal expertise now with software and hardware to tweak Windows Phone so that it can run on hardware specs more suited to a lower price point.
It also needs to sort out Asha, she told me, starting with making the handset more attractive by sticking some Microsoft apps on it, and then hopefully in time transitioning those customers to a low cost Lumia.
This ain’t gonna be easy. The competition is fierce out there and with Nokia’s star waning and a severe lack of apps in the ecosystem the best Redmond can probably hope for is cementing it in third place behind the deadly duo of iOS and Android. With four of the Lumia’s top selling markets in APAC (including no. 1 and 2) however, it must make the region a priority.
Time will tell how successful it is, of course, but time, as we all know, is probably something Micr-okia doesn’t have.