As a Windows Phone user I've been bearish on Nokia's (NOK) and Microsoft's (MSFT) strategy at the low end of the major smartphone markets -- the U.S. and Europe. For emerging markets, as I said in my previous article on Nokia, their plan has been very clear and, to my mind, well executed. Windows Phone 8 shipped with lower-cost models at the same time as the flagship Lumia 920 hit the markets there. But in the U.S. we only saw the 920 and the more budget-conscious 810/820 for those carriers not named AT&T (NYSE:T).
Fair enough, AT&T wanted the flagship phone and was willing to go to great lengths to help sell it but it seriously slowed down the rollout to the entire market and, I think, hurt their ability to capitalize on the fatigue that was creeping into smartphone sales. Microsoft's handling of the Windows 8/RT/WP8 rollout was spotty at best and maybe getting it mostly right given the limitations of a number of its partners -- notably Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and the steaming pile that is Clover Trail that delayed the Surface Pro -- including Nokia it is hard to quibble. But, I will because the technology business is brutal and unforgiving.
Fast forward to today and the opening of Mobile World Congress and Nokia unveiled the heavily-leaked Lumia 720 and 520. Both phones are mostly destined for overseas but a small bit of news slipped through, nearly undetected, that a variation on the 520, the 521, will be coming to T-Mobile in Q2. The 521 will likely be like the 810 currently offered on T-Mobile, identical in every way to its sister model except for the radios inside.
This, to me, is significant. It is not that T-Mobile is a great carrier or network and the 520 has a few limitations it is going to be available in the U.S. at a price point (announced price of $139) that brings real competition to the entry level smartphone market now completely dominated by Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android. Specs for the two phones are here and here.
I'm no fan of Android, personally, feeling that as a platform it suffers from all the same problems that Microsoft contended with for decades with DOS/Windows across open architecture, but only compounded by now having the OS itself be forked to whatever version the OEM wants to do with it.
Android gained market share (and queue the fanbois on all sides) mostly because it was not-Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and not because it was functionally any good. The choice between the $300 iPhone (replete with 2 year contract) and the free HTC/Samsung/LG/Whatever for a lot of people was an easy one. Going from a feature phone to even a bad smartphone is a huge leap in functionality. But, now we are into the real phase of the game. Now, BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) is pretty much dead, Microsoft isn't acting like they own the world any more and have been humbled by their own arrogance and ineptitude and Apple is sitting on a market share base in the U.S. that, frankly, is unassailable.
I think Android is vulnerable here and Nokia's design, Windows Phone's performance on marginal hardware and full integration into Windows will turn a few heads. Apple has proven that design sells and the one thing I can say about all of the new Lumias, they have style.
In the past week we have seen a trio of small enterprise level wins for Microsoft and Windows Phone. And this is a particular focus for Nokia and Microsoft.
And this is why, I think, Nokia and Microsoft have to get serious about courting the portion of the U.S. market that is still growing and is not a potential Apple customer, in the PayGo market. T-Mobile has pretty much moved to that model and MVNOs of all types are now offering data plans cheap enough to make the outright purchase of a $139 Lumia 520 something really worth switching carriers and phone OS for.
This phone is at least 2 months too late and I suspect some version of it and the 720 wind up on Sprint and Verizon (VZ) before too long. But between the excellent 620 and the 720 Nokia finally has a Lumia for each segment of the market. With Huawei bringing the Ascend W-1, also a solid entry-level phone, to Net10/AT&T MVNOs Windows Phone will finally have a credible shot of beginning to take over market share.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.