Microsoft and Nokia

It’s been very clear that for some time that Windows Phone was not working. It isn’t failing, exactly - sales are drifting slowly upwards and it’s ahead of Blackberry in some markets (as though that was an achievement), but it sold 20-25m units in the last 12 months where Android sold 430m or so (and perhaps another 150m in China) and the iPhone 143m. It’s irrelevant in the scope of the industry, and for Microsoft that counts as failure. For Nokia, meanwhile, simple finance was an issue: Microsoft’s announcement says that operating break-even is 50m units, a long way off at current growth rates. So, something had to change.

There’s lots of detail in the transaction structure to pick over. Why is Nokia licensing the brand instead of selling it when it has no consumer-facing business? Why isn’t Microsoft buying Here, the location platform? Why are the patents licensed instead of sold? Why did Microsoft take on the featurephone business?

I have thoughts on some of these, but they’re not really important. What matters is what happens next.

My initial reaction, like many, was that this changes nothing. Windows Phone is failing because of a classic vicious circle: consumers will not buy it because it has very few apps, and developers will not target it because very few consumers own one. There may be 20-30m Windows Phones in use, but there are 250m iPhones and over 900m Android phones out there. As a developer, any investment you make in Windows Phone is investment you’re not making in iOS or Android, and that opportunity cost delta is huge. There are other issues (distribution and sales commissions most obviously) but those are secondary: the ecosystem itself is sub-scale and that is self-perpetuating.

So, the acquisition solves Nokia’s problem (running out of cash) and hence is a tactical move by Microsoft: it prevents the only significant Windows Phone OEM from exiting the market. It is possible that Nokia threatened to switch to Android otherwise (the relevant contracts are getting close to renewal), rather as Motorola threatened to sue other Android OEMs before Google bought it.

But ownership by Microsoft will not of itself change the sales of Windows Phones. If anything, it will decrease them, since it prompts other OEMs to give up on it entirely. It will not make more developers make Windows Phone apps or more consumers buy the devices. And it does little or nothing for Windows on tablets. Something else needs to change.

However.

Microsoft IS going through a fundamental strategic change. Steve Ballmer is leaving - possibly pushed out. It is moving from a business line to a functional structure, and reorganising to become a devices and services company. The (misfired) Surface was one step towards devices, but owning a handset manufacturer is a much bigger one.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Microsoft does make a significant change in strategy - something that would give it a much better chance to become relevant in mobile. Owning Nokia - both the featurephone and smartphone parts - might well be part of that.

That is, is this a doubling down on the existing, failing strategy, or a foundation for a new one?