Verizon Wireless Makes Reasonable Demand of Windows Phone

Microsoft's strategy for Windows Phone is simple enough: Offer consumers a middle ground between the overly consistent but choice-constrained iPhone and the overly-diverse but inconsistent Android platforms. But Verizon Wireless is calling Microsoft's bluff and exposing a major hole in this strategy: And it says it will drop Windows Phone unless Microsoft picks up the pace and starts taking advantage of the wireless carrier's key differentiator, the high bandwidth LTE wireless network.

"We've communicated to Microsoft that LTE is critical to us," Verizon Wireless chief market officer Marni Walden told CNET. "We need to see a timeline that makes sense if we want to continue to represent them."

The issue here is a bit more complex than it seems at first. And it all comes down to strategy. 

On the one hand, we have Apple, which after blindsiding the mobile industry with its innovative iPhone over four years ago has slowed down considerably, releasing just a single new iPhone model every year to 18 months. That's an eon in smart phone time, but Apple hasn't suffered much from being slow for two reasons. First, Apple's fans tend to be, well, loyal lemmings, and they will simply wait for anything the company releases without fairly evaluating the competition. And second, because Apple has so many devout fans, some less sophisticated new users believe that only Apple's products are worth using as well. It's the power of word of mouth.

On the other end of the spectrum is Android, Google's mobile platform. Android-based smart phones are now outselling the iPhone by a wide margin, also for two reasons. First, Android is free to hardware makers, so an unusually wide selection of devices is available. And not coincidentally, Android device makers need to innovate more quickly to differentiate their phones from other Android handsets. So Android phones tend to have the newest features--like LTE and NFC support--before devices based on other platforms.

So where does Windows Phone fall? As noted previously, right in the middle. Microsoft uses an Android-like partner model for getting devices to market, but because it charges for the OS, fewer hardware makers, and fewer devices, make it to market. Likewise, these devices don't appear as frequently as do Android devices, and don't include leading edge features. So when Microsoft rolled out its latest Windows Phone OS, version 7.5, a few months back, it didn't support LTE at all, just 3G and the pseudo-4G HSPA+ technologies that some of Verizon's competitors use.

To be fair, Apple doesn't support LTE either. Did Verizon Wireless deliver a similar ultimatum to that company? I doubt it.

But Windows Phone isn't just competing with the iPhone, it's competing with a rampaging horde of Android devices, which seem to arrive at the rate of ten a week. And these phones, again, do go to great lengths to support next-generation technologies. Including LTE.

Meanwhile, customers interested in buying a new generation Windows Phone on Verizon Wireless may be in  for a long wait. Previously, sources at Microsoft confided in me that Verizon followed its own schedule when I asked why the company wasn't represented at the Windows Phone 7.5 launch. And there are hints that the company is working with Nokia to bring an improved version of the Lumia 800 to the US in January. But this week's comments suggest that Verizon isn't particularly interested in promoting new phones that support only yesterday's wireless networks. And I have to say, I can hardly blame them for that.
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