As expected, Microsoft's decision to hit the mid-range and low-end of the smart phone market with the recently announced Nokia Lumia 830 and 730/735 has caused some grumbling among those Windows Phone enthusiasts who are ever pining for a new flagship. As one of those enthusiasts, I understand the complaints—indeed, I pressed Microsoft about this very issue when I was briefed about these handsets. But if we step back for a second and consider Windows Phone's place in the world, these new devices make all kinds of sense. Indeed, I'm particularly excited by the Lumia 830, which I'm considering as my next daily driver.
"Considering" being sort of a vague term here, since I've spent less than an hour manhandling the handset, and split that time going hands-on with the Lumia 730 and 735, and of course the Nokia Wireless Charging Plate DT-903 and awkwardly-named (even for Microsoft) Microsoft Screen Sharing For Lumia Phones HD-10. I eagerly await review units. And then opening my wallet.
Since I have to wait on both, I've been poring over Microsoft's documentation for the devices in the meantime. And placing these new devices alongside other recently-released Nokia Lumia handsets, you see a 2014 lineup that really does match what the market will bear. (More on that in a bit.) That is, sure, I would love to see a Lumia 1025 (or whatever) and a new 15xx phablet. But Lumia is a business. And Microsoft is rightfully going for where the money is and, as I noted in a new story last week, also trying to nudge the volume part of the Windows Phone a bit upmarket at the same time.
To put this in context, consider AdDuplex's helpful Windows Phone usage data, released monthly and regularly featured here on this site because of its value in helping us all understand this market. The most recent AdDuplex report, from about a week ago, shows that, of the Windows Phone handsets released in past year, only inexpensive, low-end models factor into the top 10 of all Windows Phones from a usage perspective. The last flagship to make the top 10 was the Lumia 925, which was released back in the Cenozoic Era (i.e. 2013). The other, the Lumia 920, arrived two years ago.
The "why" of this is straightforward: With just 3 percent of the market or so, Windows Phone is too much of a risk for the average or educated smart phone customer. These people—the majority—know that all of the apps are on iPhone and Android, even though you or I might make impassioned arguments about why that doesn't really matter as much as some believe. Too, I feel that the Windows Phone name is deleterious to the success of the platform: To those rapidly adopting the "mobile first, cloud first" era in which we now live, Windows is a brand from the past, from the unreliable, balky PC past. Why would anyone want a Windows phone? (Lowercase "p" is purposeful there, typo spotters.)
Regardless of your belief in the evilness of wireless carriers—well founded, but let's move on—or in the inability of their in-store employees to see beyond iPhone or the Android device of the week—the reality is, none of that matters. People know about iPhone and Android. Anything else can and should scare them.
The reason Microsoft has moved to "zero dollar" licensing for Windows Phone is simple: It can serve the lowest-end part of the market, which is also the volume part of the market as smart phones become mainstream, commodity products. Indeed, it can sort of flood the market with low-end devices, both directly via its Nokia Lumia lineup and indirectly via the 15+ hardware partners that are now shipping Windows Phone handsets around the world.
I do think that Microsoft will continue shipping new flagships and that, yes, we will see Lumia 1020 and 1520 replacements, and that these devices will even ship in the United States. I think Microsoft needs to demonstrate, as it does with Surface on the PC side, that Windows Phone isn't a lost cause and that the right designs, features, and functionality can make for a truly differentiated device that isn't an iPhone or Android handset. But these future flagships will be statements, not mass market best-sellers. We may love the 1020 and 1520—and Icon/930—but these devices have never really been a contender in any marketplace in the world for the most part.
So Microsoft is going to where the volume is. I mentioned the firm's 2014 Nokia Lumia lineup before. Let's recap what this looks like.
A few weeks back, Microsoft told me that it was segregating its Windows Phone handset lineup into two parts, high-end smart phones and affordable smart phones. ("Affordable" being a much better marketing term than "low-end.") (The firm also makes legacy Nokia-branded feature phones, which are of no interest to this discussion.)
Looking only at this year's Lumia devices, we see the following:
High-end: Lumia Icon/930, Lumia 830
Low-end: Lumia 530, Lumia 630/635, Lumia 730/735
You may be ready to quibble over putting the Lumia 830 in the high-end category. But Microsoft defines these spaces by price, and the high-end is devices that cost $200 and up. The low-end, of course, is devices that cost less than $200.
Looked at in this perspective, Microsoft essentially just announced one device in each category (with the understanding that the Lumia 730 and 735 are essentially the same phone). But the majority of its recent releases have of course been low-end devices because that's what's selling.
What differentiates the Lumia 830 from previous (and "real") flagship devices isn't so much some pedantic list of features—which tech enthusiasts such as us will debate endlessly, but no one normal really cares about at all—but rather than the 830 is affordable. It represents a more logical step up the chain from its Lumia 530, 630/635 and 730/735 siblings. The gap between this device and the 730/735 is not great, but it is measurable and obvious. The gap between the 730/735 and 930, by comparison, is huge. It's the Grand Canyon.
So yes, do hope for the best, and expect eventual follow-ups for the Lumia 1020 and 1520. But if you want Windows Phone generally, and the Nokia Lumia lineup specifically, to both survive and thrive, then at least acknowledge that these products actually make sense given where the market is going.
And what the heck. I really want a Lumia 830.