Do you know how it feels when your girlfriend/boyfriend goes behind your back to flirt with somebody else? Nokia does, and if we didn’t know any better Microsoft may have found itself a new (or more accurately, renewed) partner in HTC.
I have to admit, that was the last thing I expected to see from HTC’s press event yesterday. I expected the expected, perhaps a Titan X or a Radar sequel that bumps up the specs. Instead the world received the 8X and 8S, and these two devices represent the most exciting development to happen to Windows Phone in a while. However, the previous last most exciting development belonged to Nokia just two weeks ago when they announced the Lumia 920. At the time, that device looked like a shoe-in to become the new flagship for Microsoft to flaunt in front of the competition.
So here’s the million dollar question: why are HTC’s new handsets considered Microsoft’s “signature smartphones”?
Before I attempt to answer that question, take a look at the Android world right now. It’s undeniable that the software has seen incredible success, for users and manufacturers alike. People benefit from having a common platform that shares an app and services ecosystem, while manufacturers benefit from very flexible software that can be manipulated to give them a hardware edge. Yet the one thing that keeps all of those phones united is the very thing manufacturers are desperately trying to cover up: Android. Samsung doesn’t sell phones with “Android”, they sell “Galaxy” phones. Long before that, HTC didn’t sell phones with “Android”, because they sold phones with “Sense”.
While there has never been such a problem in the world of Windows Phone, that is because no brand has been strong enough to create enough separation from the software. That is, until Nokia came along. Just look at the exclusive app agreements, first party software like City Lens or Drive, their hardware accessories for wireless charging and NFC enabled speakers, and even their latest marketing slogan, Switch to Lumia. Nokia isn’t selling “Windows Phones” anymore.
That’s a problem for Microsoft. Recently, CEO Steve Ballmer said he expected Windows 8 to give “a lot of lift” to Windows Phone because of the matching interfaces and how well the branding was aligned between the two products. That all goes out the window when you throw in the word ‘Lumia’ — it just doesn’t fit. Microsoft doesn’t want people saying “I’m syncing my Lumia to my Windows 8 tablet”; they want them to say, “I’m syncing my Windows Phone to my Windows 8 tablet”. With Nokia’s emphasis on the Lumia brand, that may not be possible.
So, while Microsoft is still looking to Nokia for help establishing Windows Phone as a real third ecosystem, it also needs to make sure its own brand doesn’t become a victim of their success. Enter the “Windows Phone 8X and Windows Phone 8S by HTC”. Yes, those are the official product names of HTC’s new duo (not just 8X and 8S), and according to statements received by The Verge it was a mutual decision between the two companies. Microsoft has even said it publicly with Steve Ballmer quoted as saying the devices are the, “Signature of the Windows Phone brand”. While that does not mean a whole lot right now, it could be a subtle move towards a Nexus-like strategy.
When it comes to the phones themselves, I think Nokia has a valid argument against HTC for ‘borrowing’ some of the company’s trend-setting features. However, if we were to look at the 8X and 8S through the proxy of Microsoft, it appears they wanted to distill the essence of what makes Windows Phones cool. The result is eye-catching colors, unorthodox design, and software unique enough to match. Once again, that’s in large part due to Nokia, whose excellent global marketing campaign has managed to sell Windows Phones more effectively than anything Microsoft has attempted on its own in the last two years.
Borrowing in this case is for the greater good, and Nokia may just have to deal with that.