Over the next month, two new Windows Phones are set to go on sale in the UK: the colourful Nokia Lumia 710 and budget priced ZTE Tania. Neither alone will likely change the status quo at gunpoint, but they point to an extremely useful plan B that Microsoft has been working on: getting the price – and the experience – down to compete with the cheapest Android smartphones out there right now.
Right now, both Apple’s iOS and Google’s mobile operating system, Android, are dominating the smartphone space. As of November 2011, Android devices made up 46.9 percent of the US smartphone market, according to ComScore, while Apple’s iPhone accounted for a solid 28.7 percent. Between August and October however, Microsoft’s Windows Phone (and older Windows Mobile) percentage actually fell, from 5.7 percent to 5.2 percent.
Microsoft needs to up those numbers urgently, and while flagship devices likes the Nokia Lumia 800 are a good start, they’re not going to change the situation drastically overnight. But budget Windows Phones? They really could.
Even though it seems like everyone and their dog has a smartphone these days, it’s easy to forget that it’s still a growing market. Actually, make that mushrooming. Mobile phone sales are shooting up, and within that, smartphones are becoming more important than ever, growing 74 percent in demand year on year according to Gartner’s August 2011 findings. Leading the charge? Budget Android phones from the likes of Huawei and ZTE, who, as we’ve reported before, are leaping up the ranks of the world’s biggest mobile phone peddlers.
“Smartphone sales continued to rise at the expense of feature phones,” says Roberta Cozza, principal research analyst at Gartner. “Consumers in mature markets are choosing entry-level and midrange Android smartphones over feature phones, partly due to carriers’ and manufacturers’ promotions.”
And there you have it: people aren’t buying these phones because they run Android, but because they’re cheap and their network is shoving them their way.
The surprisingly thin Blaze can now be had for around £60 on Pay As You Go, but comes with a truly awful default keyboard pre-installed, and runs on a paltry 256MB of memory. The Samsung Galaxy Y unforgivably uses a low-res QVGA screen – a resolution many Android apps don’t even support. And the HTC Explorer? Well, despite its similarities to the Blaze, it’s twice the price. And twice as ugly.
By contrast, you know what you’re getting with Windows Phone: Microsoft lays out the minimum specs. That can be a curse with a flagship phone (how to tell one apart from the other?), but it’s a guarantee of a minimum standard of satisfaction – crucially important in the area of the market crowded by cheap Android phones with tiny screens and a load of bloatware installed on them. With Windows Phone, you know you’re getting that great big homescreen layout that’s easy to navigate, and a keyboard which won’t force you to become illiterate in order to get anything done in a reasonable time. There is no guarantee of this when you pick up a network-branded Android phone.
The Nokia Lumia 710, which packs most of the same innards as the polycarbonate 800 in a cheaper plastic shell, goes on sale here in February, but it’s the ZTE Tania that could really put an end to budgetdroids. Due in March, at £249.99 SIM-free, or a promised £10-£20 on contract, it’s the cheapest Windows Phone yet. I haven’t tested a final review unit yet, but given those minimum requirements, I can’t see how this isn’t going to become the default phone I recommend whenever technophobic friends ask me what phone they should get because theirs just broke and they want something that has internet and oh oh Facebook as well and they don’t care otherwise.
Both Orange and ZTE have told me that they are not planning a subsidised Pay As You Go model of the Tania, which is a shame, as this really could have brought the price down (A similarly sized and priced ZTE Android phone, the Skate, now goes for £150 on Orange PAYG as the Orange Monte Carlo).
But ZTE, now the fourth biggest mobile manufacturer in the world by volume, wants to carve out a brand name for itself in the West, and you can bet it’s going to continue to slash prices aggressively. Mid-range smartphones are cut-throat business, no doubt, but in this case, it’s ZTE that’s holding the bloody knife.
It’s not going to stop there, either. Microsoft – while carefully vetting the experience, something it completely failed to do with Windows Mobile – is paring Windows Phone down for cheaper devices.
The next update, Tango, is reportedly due out by Summer, and promises to provide Windows Phone at the “best prices”, according to a leaked roadmap. That means Windows Phone on less powerful hardware, and thus at lower prices.
That’s where Nokia comes in: while the Lumia 710 is smaller and slightly pricier than the ZTE Tania, Nokia still knows how to produce phones at scale. What happens when Microsoft provides a new set of minimum specs with Tango, letting it put all its expertise with QWERTY keyboard phones and manufacturing at vast scales to good use?
Windows Phones wins the middle ground – and that’s exactly what Nokia boss Stephen Elop said it would do almost a year ago, with “a very low price point.”
“We have become convinced that we can do that very quickly,” he told Reuters at the dramatic announcement that Nokia was dropping Symbian in favour of Windows Phone. Combine that with Microsoft’s somewhat cynical plan to give phone shop sales folk commissions for every Windows Phone sold, and you’ve got a recipe for dramatic growth.
Samsung Galaxy Y kindly supplied by Expansys