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The canary is dead, and Nokia needs to escape the Windows Phone mineshaft now

nokia ces stephen elop microsoft steve balmer
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop shakes hands with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at a Lumia unveiling Image used with permission by copyright holder

How’s this for a statistic: Nokia controls 85 percent of the global Windows Phone market. Its closest competitor is HTC, with 9.8 percent, leaving about 5.2 percent that Huawei, Samsung, and ZTE can divvy up among themselves. These figures come from AdDuplex, which analyzed data from just over 1,000 Windows Phone apps which use the ad promotion network.

Once the initial surprise has worn off, the amount of control Nokia has begins to make sense. After all, the company has been announcing and releasing brand new Windows Phone hardware every few months during 2013, while all other smartphone manufacturers in the world have almost universally ignored it. Although there are other Windows phones available, the total amount of phones offered by its competitors this year probably doesn’t even equal Nokia’s entire range.

Though Windows Phone is showing signs of life, it’s only because Nokia is holding the defibrillators. Indeed, the canary is dead; the hippo is humped; the wizard has spoken … However, you want to say it, Nokia is in trouble. Though it is a stronger company than it was in 2011, Nokia may, again, be standing on a burning platform. Despite owning almost all Windows Phone sales, and making some great phone hardware, Nokia is not even in the top 5 when it comes to smartphone sales.

Nokia is the only company that cares about Windows Phone

It’s also the only one pushing boundaries. Nokia has invested heavily in Microsoft’s OS. The Lumia 920 and subsequently the Lumia 1020 were not only the first top end Windows Phone camera phones, but also two of the best camera phones on the market, regardless of operating system. There are also growing rumors of the first quad-core Windows Phones coming from Nokia, plus the first big-screen phablets and devices with 1080p displays. Nokia wants to be first in all the major categories, and right now it has virtually no competition on WP.

The Lumia 520 is now the world’s most popular Windows Phone.

Then there’s the software, as Nokia produces its own range of Windows Phone apps specifically for its phones, and is just about to unleash Lumia Amber, a Nokia-specific update with various new features to improve all its most recent devices.

Nokia has also covered all the price points, and hasn’t skimped on its lower range model’s spec sheets either, making them popular choices. A glance at another AdDuplex stat reveals 57 percent of Windows Phones in use have 512MB of RAM, indicating cheaper handsets are in more demand than higher-end hardware, and its those which help amass market share.

No-one can accuse Nokia of not embracing Windows Phone, and certainly from the look of AdDuplex’s stats, its dedication is paying off. The Lumia 520 for example (another budget phone), is now the world’s most popular Windows Phone device, and takes 27 percent of the entire market, a full 10 percent ahead of the number two phone, the Lumia 920. Samsung’s Ativ S meanwhile, claims just 2 percent.

Symbian deja vu?

For all practical purposes, Nokia owns Windows Phone. Thus it finds itself in an eerily familiar situation. In 2008, Nokia was responsible for 85 percent (see page 31) of Symbian sales, too. This was just before the OS was starting its free fall in the face of iPhone and Android. At that time, supporters like Samsung and Sony Ericsson also began to jump ship, leaving Symbian to Nokia.

Nokia’s complete control of Windows Phone echoes the situation it once faced with Symbian, an OS it abandoned because customers and manufacturers had moved on. It’s ironic that it finds itself in an almost identical position with its replacement. Nokia would probably argue it’s doing too good a job with Windows Phone and has scared off the competition, but there are a lot of parallels. You could say it has left one OS few people cared about, only to adopt another.

nokia lumia 1020 screens
Nokia’s Lumia 1020 has, arguably, the best camera on any smartphone Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s worrisome, and analysts and reporters are all sounding the death knell for Nokia and Microsoft’s Windows Phone, particularly in the United States. In a piece titled, “Why Windows Phone is Doomed in America,” a Forbes columnist claims US wireless carriers have no faith in Windows Phone. This comes as Samsung and HTC have all but abandoned the operating system.

Nokia is in competition with itself. For now

As far as Windows Phone is concerned, Nokia is in competition with itself, but does the apathy shown by Samsung, HTC, LG, and other manufacturers mean Nokia is doomed to repeat its own sad history? Perhaps not. Unlike Symbian, Microsoft’s Windows Phone is on the rise. Research from Gartner puts Microsoft’s global market share in Q2 2013 at 3.3 percent, up from 2.6 this time last year. This, as we’ve established, is almost completely due to Nokia. Gartner also states the highest growth in smartphone sales is coming from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia – not America.

The battle is on for third place in the smartphone market, but few people seem seem willing to leave growing operating systems like iOS or Android to hitch a ride with Nokia and Windows Phone.

HTC’s global spokesperson recently tweeted, in the face of rumors to the contrary, that it was still “absolutely dedicated” to Windows Phone. We’ve also seen rumors of a mid-range Samsung Windows Phone, the SGH-i187, which could be an attempt to pull in some Windows Phone market share. But, like last year, these devices seem to be fewer and farther between from both Samsung and HTC. It’s clear that neither is pinning any hope on a massive Windows Phone revival. They just don’t want to be caught with their pants down.

All very well, but a promise and a prayer may not be enough. Nokia, though, doesn’t have much of a choice. Thanks to a public pact it made with Microsoft and customers, its hands are tied. If it makes an Android device (Why we want a Lumia Google Edition), many would see it as a death knell for Windows Phone, potentially hurting already weak sales of its entire line. So, with nowhere to go, Nokia continues to release new and unique Windows Phone hardware in the hope it can drive the OS to greater success.

Lively hardware competition will help ensure Windows Phone’s – and Nokia’s – survival. If Nokia and Microsoft don’t find a way to encourage more manufacturers, and more people, to hop on and stick with Windows Phone, history may indeed repeat itself.

Andy Boxall
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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