Friday, October 9, 2015

New Lumias continue Windows Phone’s frustrating carrier situation

Once again, Windows phones are going to suffer limited availability and carrier compatibility.

The last flagship Windows Phone phone available in the US was the Lumia Icon (known around the rest of the world as the Lumia 930). It was exclusive to Verizon. When Verizon dropped it, there was no replacement high-end Windows Phone for Verizon customers, nor any widely available high-end Windows Phone in the US regardless of carrier. Before that, the flagship was the Lumia 1520. It was exclusive to AT&T. When AT&T dropped it, there was no replacement high-end Windows Phone for AT&T customers, nor any widely available high-end Windows Phone in the US regardless of carrier. Before that, the flagship was the Lumia 920. It was exclusive to AT&T. Same story.

Windows Phone has not been as successful in the US as it has in some other markets—parts of Europe, for example—but those fans in the US have continually been frustrated by the way that Microsoft (and Nokia before it) has made its handsets available. Microsoft has negotiated exclusive agreements to give one carrier a particularly desirable phone, and those carriers have responded by promoting those phones for a period of time before dropping them entirely. This was compounded by the cancellation of the "McLaren" that was meant to be a new flagship phone available in 2014.

What did it mean in practice? A person who bought the Lumia 920 when it was released on AT&T about 3 years ago who wanted to upgrade after 2 years had nothing to upgrade to. The Lumia 930 would have been a decent upgrade, except it was never sold in American markets with American frequencies. The Icon was a CDMA phone, built for Verizon's network (and, potentially, Sprint's). Lumia 930 owners now on the lookout for an upgrade are similarly out of luck.

The new Lumia 950 and 950 XL pair seem like pretty decent phones. The Windows Hello iris scanning authentication is novel, and the Windows Continuum capability could find some customer appeal. They're fast, first impressions of their cameras are positive, and for those people who are interested in Windows Phone, they're compelling purchases.

It was, therefore, a little disappointing when it was initially reported on CNET that both phones would be exclusive to AT&T. AT&T subsequently announced that it would be supporting the 950, but made no mention of the 950 XL. The Microsoft Store, in contrast, included a listing for the unlocked 950 XL, but had no information at all about the 950.

It subsequently turned out that the initial CNET report was wrong. AT&T will be the only US carrier to sell the phones, but it has no exclusivity. The 950 will apparently turn up on the Microsoft Store—eventually—and both the 950 and the 950 XL should work on AT&T and T-Mobile. Availability in other countries is as yet unknown, with the exception of Germany. In that country, Deutsche Telekom will distribute both.

But while this situation is better than what was originally feared, with T-Mobile and AT&T customers having both phones available as an option, it's still far from ideal. The lack of in-store representation—and the carrier financing agreement that goes with it—will limit availability. T-Mobile's outspoken CEO John Legere has said that the fault lies entirely with Microsoft in a handful of tweets. He says that Microsoft made the decision, and that T-Mobile didn't turn down the phones. They were never even offered.

Moreover, Legere states that if Microsoft is willing to talk, T-Mobile is open to carrying the phones. We've asked Legere if he can be more specific—what precisely would need to be done to get the phones on T-Mobile—but we received no response. In his typically characteristic style, Legere is suggesting that the phones will be as successful as Amazon's Fire phone, which was an AT&T exclusive.
Microsoft, bizarrely, is making out that this is part of a deliberate plan. In a statement to ZDNet, the company said:
We're refocusing our channel strategy, narrowing it in the short-term and plan for broader operator availability longer term. While there was interest across the board from U.S. operators, currently we've made the decision to have AT&T carry the Lumia 950, and then sell both the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL unlocked through our own channel in the Microsoft Stores.
This does at least appear to confirm Legere's claim that it's Microsoft who decided T-Mobile couldn't have the phones, not T-Mobile. It adds to the frustration. Even with the phones available unlocked, for many would-be buyers the availability of carrier financing is highly desirable, as it provides the ability to spread the purchase price over many months, often at relatively little additional cost. In principle, this is something that Microsoft itself could relatively easily fix for the unlocked handsets it sells by offering its own financing, just as Apple is doing for the iPhone 6s.

Unfortunately, even if some agreement can be reached, this is only half the story, thanks to the US' ugly telephonic split between the GSM carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile) and the CDMA carriers (Verizon, Sprint). The 950 and 950 XL both use Qualcomm systems-on-chips and modems, and Qualcomm has chips that support both GSM and CDMA with the same hardware. Building all-carrier hardware is technically feasible; the Google Nexus 5 was a combination GSM and CDMA handset, as are a number of iPhone versions. But for whatever reason, Microsoft hasn't gone this route with the 950 and 950 XL.

While there may not have been a ton of Windows Phone users on America's biggest phone network, the decision means that those users that do exist are essentially stranded. Lumia Icon owners who want to upgrade are going to have to upgrade to Android or iPhone instead. Even developers for the platform are being forced to jump ship.

The lack of broad carrier compatibility and almost non-existent carrier promotion ensure that the 950 and 950 XL will not be big sellers. This is disappointing for the existing customers that enjoy the platform; it further reduces the relevance of the Universal Windows Platform, and it means that even new features like Continuum will have minimal reach. Continuum could be attractive to mobile workers and road warriors, but it isn't going to do a thing for anyone who wants or needs to use Verizon's network.

And fundamentally, it's disappointing because we've seen this situation before. Windows Phone has struggled from day one with poor carrier availability and promotion, combined with a lack of real continuity: customers who take an interest in the platform and are now 18 or 24 months into their contracts have been left with nowhere to go but Android or iPhone before. We'd hoped that Windows 10 and Microsoft's revised phone strategy might have done something about this. It appears that it hasn't.