The often maligned Steve Ballmer recently quipped that with Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Phone 7 gambit, Microsoft improved its mobile market share from very small to very small. Although reviewed relatively well in the press and online, the release suffered from a large number of small but vexing usability issues. Consumers balked, and Windows Phone 7 failed to make a dent in a highly competitive and increasingly fluid sector.
Data from last quarter on domestic smart phone subscriptions confirms a veritable onslaught from the Apple (AAPL) iOS and Google (GOOG) Android juggernauts:
More recently, a Canalys worldwide survey claimed that Google’s OS now makes up about 50% of global smart phone sales thanks to broad support from a variety of vendors and wide selection of entry-level devices, boasting over 550,000 new unit activations per day. While Microsoft has done a good job leveraging its patent portfolio and legal standing to monetize its stake in Android through direct OEM agreements, there’s no question that the Redmond behemoth remains a spectator instead of a brawler in the all-out war between Apple and Google for minds, hearts and wallets.
But it’s too early to write Microsoft off, and I believe the company, already undervalued on a sum-of-components basis, sells at a further discount that ignores long-term prospects in a space which has been and will continue being volatile. One-time winners have turned into today’s losers, and those sitting on the sidelines today may yet turn out to be tomorrow’s players. With the official RTM copy of Windows Phone 7.5, codenamed “Mango,” being released into the wild, there are signs that bode well for Microsoft and its manufacturing partners:
* Microsoft’s commitment to incremental updates and functionality improvements represents a serious shift — a late one, perhaps, but critical nonetheless. When Windows Phone 7 failed to make an impact, it would’ve been easy to pull the plug on Mango and instead focus on the radically redesigned Windows 8 platform due next year, a kick-the-can strategy Microsoft has been known to use before when confronted with lackluster launches. It didn’t happen. Redmond appears to be finally taking into account that year-long release cycles do not belong in such a fluid marketplace. Smart phone users expect and demand updates in days rather than months, and Microsoft is showing signs it understands this. This is non-trivial, as the company has been out-maneuvered before by faster development cycles; witness Internet Explorer’s astonishing collapse in users as Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome offer faster updates and more rapidly expanding feature sets.
* Microsoft is investing serious resources into comprehensive support of current and future developers. Windows Phone programmers have been treated to consistent access to Mango beta builds, free toolsets and sneak previews into what writing Windows 8 applications will look like. With Windows Marketplace expanding gradually and showing signs of evolving into a truly viable ecosystem, handhelds operating Windows Phone will look more appealing to discerning consumers.
* A whole slew of support has been announced from existing major OEMs. Fujitsu, Samsung (SSNFL.PK), HTC (HTCXK.PK) and LG have all broadcast their intentions to offer Mango devices, and former leader Nokia (NOK) has already showcased a working prototype based on the appealing but Symbian-crippled N9 design. I believe Nokia’s all-in bet with Windows Phone may be a decisive point not just for the floundering Finnish giant but also for Microsoft. Nokia’s technical and design expertise is not negligible.
* Finally, the sheer quality of the Mango updates is impressive. After having an opportunity to interact with the RTM version of the OS, I walked away pleasantly surprised by the overall responsiveness on a single-core phone and lengthy list of bug fixes, enhancements and functionality tweaks. Most of the changes are subcutaneous rather than obvious, but the end effect is a “it just works” feeling that’s hard to quantify.The pane interface is streamlined and intuitive, a welcome departure from iOS and Android implementations of the touch interface. Engadget’s popular preview sums it all up rather well:
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, Windows Phone is developing into the OS we’ve been asking for since we first used it last year. By adding in crucial elements like multitasking, groups, social network integration and more, it’s starting to play catch-up to the other big names in mobile. Not overcome — catch-up. Mango hasn’t shown us anything truly groundbreaking yet. At least this platform, still in its youth, is stepping onto the same playing field as hard hitters like iOS and Android, though. One thing that surprised us was how few bugs or choppy effects were present in this build, an impressive feat considering we’re still a few months away from completion. Overall, we’ve come away with a positive outlook on Windows Phone’s newest iteration, and are very eager to see the finished result
These factors point to this quarter as the first of many during which Microsoft seriously establishes itself as a contender in the smart phone space.
MSFT doesn’t look as cheap as it did three months ago, after outperforming the Nasdaq by a full 11%, but it’s still historically undervalued. As the market continues to be rattled by cyclical worries, this appears to be good opportunity to establish or expand exposure.