Nokia Lumia and Windows Phone – Needs of the Many

Since September, Nokia have churned out ten different Lumia devices of massively varying specifications and sizes – not including the 810 which was discontinued in April. Whilst Microsoft’s Windows Phone software is licensed to HTC, Samsung and Huawei to use on their handsets, around 80% of WP7 and 8 devices currently in use worldwide are Nokias. The Finnish company, in particular, has a vested interest in helping Windows Phone to grow, since their strong association – albeit not an exclusive one – will hopefully echo back into a resurgence in Nokia sales. The overload of Lumias seems to be them trying appeal to every section of the market, but is that really the best strategy?

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For all concerned, the separation of device and OS into two distinct entities has been a welcome change. For the hardware makers, this frees up time and resources to focus on the device itself without having to go through the rigamarole of tailoring bespoke software to run on it. Naturally Nokia, who clung to its own Symbian software as late as 2011, has taken full advantage of this judging by the plethora of new Lumias. However, entrusting the OS – and by extension most of the user experience – to a different company altogether is risky. If the user is dissatisfied because of a problem in the OS then they’ll think less of every logo attached to it, regardless of their culpability in the fault.

Whilst the relative homogeneity of an OS makes this less of a risk, the more handsets the manufacturer produces the less time they have to perfect the integration between hardware and software. Apple’s iPhone – being a single device with a homegrown OS – has the benefit of being tightly integrated whereas other manufacturers have to adapt both their hardware and the OS to smooth the synthesis. Having to repeat this process for many handsets, each with varying specifications and quirks, means that corners will inevitably be cut.

Of course, the average consumer doesn’t usually notice these things, so you could argue that it makes sense for manufacturers to offer as wide a variety of handsets as possible so that people are more likely to find a device that suits their needs (not to mention wallet). Whilst this is true in theory, it assumes that the average consumer has the time or inclination to exhaustively research every handset presently on the market. Let alone make sense of what the information means practically and how they each compare, exacerbated now by the need to choose a preferred OS as well.

This is where the simplicity of Apple’s single-device approach shines – albeit helped largely by the power of their brand – as it allows people to choose the most up-to-date version of a phone that they (at least anecdotally) know to be good without having to weigh up all the options. Thereafter, the deep platform lock-in that has been ingrained into iOS since the very first iPhone means that customers are far less likely to stray after they’ve sunk a great deal of time, money and content into the Apple ecosystem. The fact that Apple got there first means that this success could not easily be replicated, even by them.

Android Fragmentation
Infographic showing Android device fragmentation in 2013. Source: OpenSignal

But how can that be when Android has a majority market share and continues to grow each year? Consider that all the major spikes in Android’s growth since its introduction has been on the back of single flagship devices. The HTC Dream, better known as the T-Mobile G1, kicked off this trend and a succession of distinctly recognisable HTC devices (the Desire, Hero and Nexus One, for example) facilitated Android’s rise in its first year. More recently, as the infographic above demonstrates, the most prominent Android phones have all been from Samsung’s Galaxy line (primarily the S3) and presently the S4 seems to be the most recognisable “iPhone-alternative”.

The app infrastructure of a mobile OS is a factor that even the most technophobic smartphone users will take into account when selecting a mobile OS and is an area where Windows Phone has a lot of catching up to do. Nokia has a strategic role to play in helping tempt app developers to the Windows Phone platform and bolster Microsoft’s claim to the “third ecosystem”. Too many varying handsets and the result will be to fragment support and deter developers, as we’ve seen happen to Android. Its initial popularity, before the discrepancies became too obvious, helped Android survive as a profitable system for developers but Nokia and Microsoft have no such head-start.

Microsoft imposes strict hardware requirements on manufacturers it licenses Windows Phone to, which should prevent the OS from becoming fragmented. Nokia needs to ensure it appreciates the necessity of this and doesn’t use the influence it has with Microsoft – as the most popular Windows Phone carrier – to demand that they lift the restrictions so they can churn out more phones.

With ten impressive Lumias already on the market, Nokia should slow down and let the most popular ones shine through, giving them a basis on which to create a more recognisable smartphone brand that will endure regardless of Windows Phone’s ultimate fate.