It’s Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 and in the United States, we still have this stupid arrangement within the mobile phone industry with infrastructure cartels also known as carriers. On the other end of the mobile industry is the mobile phone manufacturers. Somewhere the two meet and that’s where consumers get the “privilege” to live – in this contorted hell between carriers and manufacturers.
From mid-2013 to December 2015, I was a Microsoft Lumia 928 user. The 928 is a phone which is specific only to Verizon (just because they’re oh so special). I had bought the phone over two years ago back in July of 2013 and had been waiting patiently for another flagship caliber phone to be announced. My patience was finally rewarded when Microsoft announced the Lumia 950 and 950XL in early October of this year. Waiting for more than 24 months is bad enough and with nothing to look forward to and the announcement of the Lumia 950 and 950XL were a big relief for me. A Windows 10 phone that with all the bells and whistles I wanted and then some. The hardware specifications of the Lumia 950/950XL were near or on-par with Google’s Nexus 5X and 6P and that (I thought) should have gained the attention of the mobile carriers. A removable battery, expandable microSD storage slot and Continuum were additional features that I wanted as well. That relief slowly eroded over time when I had to find out if the new phones would be supported on Verizon’s network.
In the middle of October, the phones were on display at the Microsoft store near to me so I had to visit and see it in action. The sales staff said the phone was unlocked just as Microsoft had said earlier at their product announcement. This *hint* was to suggest it would work on Verizon. Luckily, they were offering no-money down reservations so I placed an order for a Lumia 950 XL, just in case.
Days go by. Weeks go by. No communication from either Microsoft or Verizon on whether the two will cooperate over the Lumia 950XL or not. I even asked @LumiaHelp on Twitter as there was no solid information. AT&T is only confirmed for the 950 – not the 950XL. Questions popup all over twitter regarding the confusion which Microsoft has set forth. Even the tech reporters, Mary Jo Foley and Paul Thurrott on Windows Weekly continued to get very little information on the 950 XL and Verizon. Mary Jo did report that one of the radios for the 950 XL that was necessary to work with Verizon’s network was disabled. The situation looked grim.
Weeks later, Verizon was forced by an FCC complaint to answer why the Lumia 950 and 950 XL wasn’t being supported by their network. Their response? Not enough market share. Now, it’s hardly surprising to see such a poor answer but that was the bare minimum they needed to give in response to the complaint. Unfortunately, 2-3% market share beats less than 1% market share last I checked and Verizon is still selling Blackberry. If there ever was a bullshit answer for not carrying a flagship phone from a major phone manufacturer (market share be damned), this was it.
As of today Verizon is selling three Blackberry phones and Blackberry’s market share has been at 2-3% when they offered to sell their latest phone, the Z30. Today, Blackberry has less than 1% market share. So what can we extract from their statement? Verizon’s response was a smoke screen answer to an unknown problem. The only thing that’s clear is Verizon doesn’t want to talk about it – and by not acknowledging this sooner, people are left to speculate.
Another article points to Microsoft excluding Verizon by design according to Microsoft’s spokesperson implying a type of “strategic retreat” plan. From the article which directly quotes the MS rep:
We’re refocusing our channel strategy, narrowing it in the short-term and planning for broader operator availability long-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 Microsoft stores. In Europe, Deutsche Telekom will carry the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, and we’ll have more to share about other carriers shortly.
Narrowing a channel strategy in the short-term? If this strategy works, I’ll be shocked but it’s the dumbest idea I can think of. If you’re an extreme minority within a given market, how can narrowing your distribution channels be a good plan? You loose more ground to competitors thus reducing your share and with less than 3%, every little bit counts.
In the end, both Microsoft and Verizon are losers as well as the infinitesimally small Windows Phone user base in the U.S. The deafening silence from Verizon and Microsoft was like watching a couple that had recently broken up. Neither one wants to talk to one another – yet they both should work together at the very least, you know because of well.. money. Apparently, neither Microsoft or Verizon want nothing to do with one another for dubious reasons (or an assumed sordid past) and they’re willing to forgo revenue.
Last I looked, both Microsoft and Verizon are publicly held companies (disclaimer: I currently have MS shares) – isn’t this against their shareholders interest? What is the long game plan here if you continue to screw up the short-term plan? None of the statements or moves or lack thereof from both Microsoft (and Verizon) make any sense. Selling an unlocked phone sounds great – right up to the point where it won’t work on the U.S. largest mobile carrier service, Verizon. No one at Microsoft thought to mention it during the unveiling of the 950/950XL? Then what the hell was the plan? String people along to hold out for a phone that you knowingly won’t work on a major mobile network within the U.S. market?
For the meantime, I’ve switched back to the iPhone; iPhone 6s plus to be exact. I believe that the Lumia brand or maybe the Windows Phone brand will go away after a year or two. It shouldn’t, but all signs point to Microsoft’s epic failure to get Windows Phone right and Verizon’s utter denial of services that leave that makes the market share problem persist. That said, I would not be shocked by a Windows Surface Phone emerging from the ashes – however if and when that occurs, will Microsoft and Verzion and/or other carriers bury the hatchet? Will Microsoft make something compelling that can compete or just fizzle out like shooting star?
Microsoft’s inability to penetrate the market or make substantial gains means the demise of the phone I really enjoy and ultimately, leave me and other Windows Phone users wondering about a Surface Phone. While a Surface Phone would sound amazing, we’re at this same cross roads of uncertainty. If I buy into the Surface Phone, will there be a successor? Will it have a shortage of apps just like Windows Phone? Will it be discontinued as soon as it’s released? Will it be available on all major phone carriers? These are stupid questions I have to ask, but nevertheless, historically speaking I have to be aware of these possibilities.
Some blame Microsoft for not pursing Verizon, others blame Verizon for not allowing the device on their network at all. I blame both parties not only for letting down their customers but also for lack of any real information during six weeks up to their release of the 950/950XL. Between Twitter, pundits and tech news outlets asking the same questions, Microsoft and Verizon PR fail in epic proportions. Even if they patch things up and work things out within the next few days or weeks, it doesn’t matter because they’ll lose people like myself – wanting the Lumia but settling for something else because we can’t wait any longer for a phone that may or may not arrive on our carrier of choice. Both companies get an “F” on handling this issue and this is the contorted hell I initially mentioned at the start of this rant. As a shareholder, I’m furious with Microsoft. As a customer of Verizon’s – this is exactly why carriers in the U.S. should allow any phone on their network. Period. They’re just like any utility. There’s no magical binary zeros or ones that separate a phone from one network carrier than another. They deliver the bits you need – how they do it is up to them and their infrastructure and pricing.
I doubt I’ll ever see this issue or any other major telecommunications issues get resolved in my lifetime, but within the fact that within the U.S. we have to struggle with this dilemma in 2015 is a clear symptom of how monopolistic our markets can be within certain industries. I’ll never really know if the 950XL was the phone I really wanted and was willing to pay $650 + tax. In the end, it’s another item to add to Microsoft’s failed products portfolio. The 950 and 950XL look to be excellent, flagship products but are practically dead on arrival due to lack of carrier compatibility/cooperation. Granted, some of Microsoft’s products/services were awful and needed to go, others were extremely promising only to be extinguished by either poor marketing or strategy – the Lumia 950/950XL is definitely the later.
I loved my Windows Phone. It worked beautifully, it was easy to use and for my needs a perfect fit. It took fantastic pictures and video. The battery life was awesome even after two years. I personally think that the live tile interface (aka Metro) is by far leaps and bounds better than what Android and iOS have to offer – in spite of the lack of apps by comparison. It’s a great phone in and of itself – and a camera that is above the rest, but Microsoft has left me with no choice but to move on. I could wait another year or two for a phone that’s as good as if not better than the 950XL – but I’ll lose out on the opportunity now to enjoy a smartphone with a real ecosystem and my mobile carrier supports it. Just like the Zune HD (yes, laugh if you will), which I used and also another great product which everyone dismissed and considering today’s market, was ahead of the times. It may have been only five to ten minutes ahead, but it was ahead of everyone else nonetheless. It seems the 950XL is DOA not because it’s way ahead of the curve (namely with Continuum) but not getting a great product to an audience is a blown opportunity. It’s not the first time they’ve blown a chance, it won’t be the last, but it may be the last chance I and others can continue to give.