What Is Microsoft's Plan For Lumia 950, 950 XL Carrier Availability?

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. 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.

Seth Colaner is the News Director at Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter @SethColaner. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

  • Blinken
    Slow burn approach like the Google Nexus line probably won't be successful given the tiny market share of windows phones. Now if these could be rooted and flashed with AOSP, wew.
  • pasow
    Please Microsoft, release a CDMA compatible version, There are people on Verizon that would love to use your phone!
  • Josh_4
    T-Mobile even said they wanted the phones! PLEASE MICROSOFT PUT THEM ON T-MOBILE!
  • unmighty
    Verizon would just sell it for peanuts making people think that it's a cheap budget phone.
  • bigedmustafa
    Giving AT&T exclusive rights to all of the latest Windows phones and then watching them bury them at the bottom of their website and not even bothering to display them in stores has worked wonders so far. I think Microsoft is wise to stay the course... assuming the Windows Phone division is a tax shelter of some kind. At least Sony has the same problem here in the U.S., and it isn't just Windows Phones.
  • g-unit1111
    Once again same old story - great product, horrible marketing department. I'm on Sprint and this is one of the best phones that I have seen in a long time, I would buy one in a heartbeat!
  • slyviper
    I have been with WP since 6.5 and currently using a 2 year old 1520 that has worked flawlessly. I work in a tech company that employs around 200 people and I see every one complaining about there phones locking up, burning thru battery life and getting way to hot. Then they praise their I-phones and Androids and laugh at my old Windows Phone and the belief that there are no apps for the windows. Well my phone has never locked up, never gets hot and the battery last forever. As for apps, there is an app for everything I need. You can only have variations of Candy Crush and Angry Birds or the multiple variations of the Facebook App... etc. The cellular companies in the US have never supported WP which is why I bought mine from Microsoft. So if the cry baby from T-Mobile is serious about carrying the 950 and giving his customers a quality phone, I suggest he get off his ass and talk to Microsoft and fully support the line this time around. One thing I can promise everyone is if you want a great reliable phone the try WP. You wont regret it.
  • falchard
    T-Mobile would be a great carrier for Windows Phone. I bought my Nokia 635 from them a year ago, and they were shown quite prominently with excited employees about the product. Particularly what it offers for the money. They weren't trying to sell me on an Android because "its better" like other carriers.
    Also the days of the Windows Phone deficient storefront are over with the ability to easily port Android and iOS applications.
  • alextheblue
    Assuming John Legere is being completely honest, there must have been some benefit from a timed "exclusive" with AT&T. But, it's not really exclusive since they sell them unlocked. Frankly I don't care whether the carriers get the devices or not, unlocked is fine by me. BUT they do need to get a Sprint/Verizon compatible CDMA version out the door at some point.
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    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

    Imagine if you had to buy a car from a certain gas station chain and then always refuel there and nowhere else. Ridiculous, innit? Then why are Americans tolerating this nonsense for phones? And why is it "baffling" that MS decided to sell both phones unlocked via their own store instead of investing a lot of resources into this carrier mess? Do people also get "baffled" when they have to buy a laptop from Amazon or BestBuy and not Comcast or some other ISP?

    I'm on Sprint and this is one of the best phones that I have seen in a long time, I would buy one in a heartbeat!

    So buy it from MS store and insert your Sprint SIM. What's the problem? How do you people even travel if you're not familiar with this simple concept?