Typically, if you want to sell a lot of smartphones, the process is as follows:
- Step 1: Create an attractive phone with solid hardware
- Step 2: Secure support from as many carriers as possible
- Step 3: Profit
There's been some misinformation floating around about the availability of the Lumia 950 and 950 XL handsets that Microsoft announced this week, and it's due in part to the baffling way the company has handled Step 2.
AT&T will carry the Lumia 950 (opens in new tab). No other carriers in the U.S. will have the phone, at least at launch, and no specific carrier will have the 950 XL. However, Microsoft itself will offer both smartphones unlocked from its own store.
Here is the official statement from a company representative:
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.
Apparently, Microsoft is taking the "slow burn" approach to selling these devices, to an extent. What "broader operator availability" means exactly is unclear. As they stand today, both the 950 and 950 XL would work on AT&T and T-Mobile networks, but not Sprint and Verizon networks. (They should, however, be able to run on any of Canada's mobile networks.)
Microsoft gets points for offering both phones unlocked -- something it inexplicably failed to do with the launch of the midrange Lumia 640 and 640 XL smartphones earlier this year -- but it's strange that T-Mobile won't be offering the 950 and 950 XL.
Microsoft's above statement said that "there was interest across the board from U.S. operators," and again, with the phones' current configurations, that could only mean AT&T and T-Mobile, unless there were unannounced plans for a CDMA version that supported Sprint and Verizon networks.
But even that seems spurious, at least if you take T-Mobile CEO John Legere (presently the most entertaining industry troll there is) at his word. He took to Twitter this week to say that T-Mobile wanted the handsets. He said that Microsoft "gave" them to AT&T.
Step 2 is a mess right now, and Microsoft can hardly afford a misstep there (or anywhere, really, as it pertain to its mobile strategy). Windows phones have a paltry market share in the U.S., and they won't nibble away at iOS and Android with a limited carrier strategy.
The Lumia 950 and 950 XL have so much going for them: They have solid specs and not-unreasonable price tags. They'll run Windows 10 for phones and all those Universal Apps, which will streamline and unify the Windows 10 experience across PCs and smartphones. They support Continuum. They're the first flagship Lumia devices in a while, so existing Windows Phone fans have been holding off on buying a new smartphone because they've been waiting for these specific handsets.
But Microsoft is fumbling the availability of the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, and that doesn't bode well for the success of these phones, nor of Microsoft's smartphone business as a whole.