It's Too Early to Write Off the Third Smartphone Ecosystem

It's Too Early to Write Off the Third Smartphone Ecosystem

Time for a reality check

Thanks to a single smart phone quarterly market share report from IDC, many are suddenly writing off Windows Phone and declaring an Android monopoly with a dribble of iPhone sales on the side. But this reckoning ignores an important point: During the quarter in question, Microsoft signed on over a dozen new device maker licensees for Windows Phone. And the new Windows Phone handsets those companies will make are coming to market in the second half of the year.

Don't get me wrong. Windows Phone's position is tenuous. But then it's always been tenuous: when Microsoft re-entered the smart phone market in 2010—four long years ago, by the way—it was derided being too late to matter. Since then, Blackberry/RIM has launched Blackberry 10 and Amazon just launched its Fire Phone. If Windows Phone was late, those platforms were stillborn.

So here are the numbers, from just a single firm: IDC says that 85 percent of all smart phones shipped in the second quarter of 2014, or 255 million units, were running Android. Apple's iPhone accounted for 11.7 percent, down from 13 percent. And Windows Phone fell to 2.5 percent, with 7.4 million devices sold (down from 3.4 percent and 8.2 million, respectively).

But here's the thing. In March, we only had one Windows Phone device maker that mattered—Nokia—and that firm was spiraling downward while it waited for regulatory approval so its devices business could be purchased by Microsoft. Perhaps not surprisingly, customers were a little leery of buying products from a firm that was in such a position.

Also in March, we only had three other mostly lackluster Windows Phone device makers: Samsung (which clearly couldn't care less about Windows Phone), HTC (which hasn't released a new device in two years), and Huawei, a Chinese company that is pragmatically hedging its bets against Android. Together, these three companies deliver under 5 percent of all Windows Phone handsets to the market. They are complete also-rans.

But in April, everything changed. 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.

Again, we need to be realistic here. Android does dominate the market, and Apple's upcoming iPhone 6 handset(s) should reverse that platform's ongoing market share slide, and perhaps not just temporarily. But I take exception to anyone making claims about this market based on a single quarter of information. A particularly clueless report in the Wall Street Journal claims, for example, that "the emerging third smartphone ecosystem [is] disappearing ... with a whimper."

Bullshit. In that same quarter, unit sales of iPhone declined worse than did those of Windows Phone. And let's not forget that sales of Apple's iPad declined by about double the rate as did Windows Phone's. (And that was the second straight quarter in which iPad sales declined—not slowed, but declined—year over year.) Is the iPad ecosystem disappearing too? No one would make such a claim.

And no one should claim that the Windows Phone ecosystem is disappearing either. I'm not saying it can't or won't happen, or that Microsoft's inability to climb out of a very deep hole is surprising or unexpected. But this single quarter is not a fair way to measure or determine such a thing.

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