Windows Phone: The Hail Mary pass is now in the air

Windows Phone had a big CES with major announcements from Nokia, HTC, and AT&T. It's now do-or-die for Microsoft in mobile. Learn why.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, and AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega show off the Nokia Lumia 900 at CES 2012. Photo credit: CNET/Lori Grunin

There are going to be no more excuses for Windows Phone by the end of 2012.

As I've said before, Windows Phone 7 is a terrific product, but it was a blazing failure in the smartphone market in 2011 and it had two legitimate excuses:

  1. Phone makers weren't putting it on their best hardware
  2. Wireless carriers weren't promoting it to their customers

After CES 2012, it's clear that both of those excuses will soon be history.

Microsoft and its three biggest phone parters — Nokia, AT&T, and HTC — went all-in on Windows Phone at CES this year.

HTC, which has been leapfrogged by Samsung and Motorola in the Android phone market, announced the HTC Titan II, a super-slim phone with a 4.7-inch screen, AT&T's 4G LTE, and an eye-popping 16 megapixel camera. The Titan II is arguably HTC's most significant and innovative new phone since the ThunderBolt, which was announced at CES last year. This year, HTC decided to power its flagship smartphone with Windows Phone 7 instead of Android. Part of that has to do with the fact that there's not as much competition among WP7 phone makers and part of it likely has to do with Apple's massive legal attack on Android hardware makers (HTC recently lost a court case to Apple). HTC is a much smaller company than Samsung and can't withstand as many court battles. It's a little safer for HTC to make phones for WP7 right now.

As amazing as the HTC Titan II is, the even bigger Windows Phone announcement at CES was the Nokia Lumia 900. This is the device we've been waiting for since Microsoft and Nokia announced their global partnership last February. In the fall, Nokia announced the Lumia 710 and the Lumia 800, which were solid-if-not-spectacular entrants into the highly-competitive smartphone market. The Lumia 900 is a larger version of the 800 that packs more power, includes a bigger 4.3-inch screen, and fixes the biggest design flaw (the hidden Mini USB port). I got a private demo and some hands-on time with the Lumia 900 at CES and I was impressed. The screen looked great and the 1.4GHz processer and AT&T's 4G LTE made it very fast. It was a little heavy, but overall the design looked and felt very high-end. I'd put it in the same category as the Motorola Droid Razr and the Apple iPhone 4S, which I consider the best two designs in the smartphone market right now.

Nokia also announced at CES that it is going to sell an unlocked version of the Lumia 800 at Microsoft Stores in the U.S. starting in February. Pricing wasn't announced but we should expect it to be around $600. This GSM phone will only have the cellular bands for AT&T and not T-Mobile, so it's basically an unlocked device that will only work in AT&T in the U.S. But, Nokia did throw T-Mobile a bone by launching the Lumia 710 on T-Mobile for $49 during the middle of CES week on January 11. This is a decent little low-cost device aimed at competing with the entry level Android and iPhone devices.

As you've probably already figured out, AT&T has developed into Microsoft's primary wireless partner in the U.S. AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega was on stage with Nokia CEO Stephan Elop and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer when the Lumia 900 was unveiled on Monday. Even more importantly, Microsoft and Nokia are reportedly about to launch a $200 million marketing campaign to promote the Lumia 900, and a chunk of the money will apparently go toward big displays in AT&T stores and sales incentives to AT&T employees who move the most Windows Phone devices. Ballmer all but confirmed this in his CES keynote when he said that the Lumia 900 would be "heavily promoted" in all 2400 AT&T stores across America.

While all of those are big developments that can only help Windows Phone, it's important to remember that Microsoft is still up against the wall in the mobile market. Things aren't quite as desperate for Microsoft and Windows Phone as they are for Research in Motion and BlackBerry — only because Microsoft has a product that can compete — but it's still fighting an uphill battle against Android and iPhone, which have all of the momentum and brand recognition among phone buyers. Also, don't forget that Motorola still continues to snub Windows Phone 7 and Samsung has moved farther away from Windows Phone and gotten even cozier with Android. Other hardware makers such as LG, Dell, and Lenovo haven't given any indications that they'll take a risk on WP7.

If sales of the Nokia Lumia 900 and HTC Titan II are disappointing then it's unlikely that any of these other hardware builders will jump on the WP7 bandwagon. So, in a very real sense, it's crunch time for Windows Phone. Microsoft has made some big moves, signed up some big partners, and now it will have to wait and see how the market responds. The Hail Mary pass is in the air. It's entirely possible that it will be caught in the endzone for a touchdown. But, let's not forget that it's still a Hail Mary.

Photo credit: Bill Detwiler/TechRepublic

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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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