Is Windows Phone 8 Microsoft's last chance?

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Today, Microsoft officially announced Windows 8, its newest desktop and tablet operating system; on Monday, it will reveal the long awaited Windows Phone 8, bringing the ecosystem full circle. However, the general reception so far has been skeptical at best. Headlines such as “Microsoft’s Last Window of Hope”, or “Microsoft’s Last Gasp Pitch”, or even the caustic “Microsoft should abort Windows Phone” paint a grim picture for the phone OS. Instead of eager discussions about features and phone specs, most of the conversations are centered on whether or not Microsoft can actually carve out a big enough chunk of the smartphone market.

The question remains: Is Windows Phone 8 really Microsoft’s final opportunity at producing a top-tier smartphone OS? The answer should surprise no one: Yes, of course it is. It’s a logical enough progression. If Microsoft can’t manage to use its recognizable brand, history, and capital to pull together stunning hardware, a fluid user interface, exciting features, a stable of must-have apps, if it can't provide a solid reason for consumers to choose Windows Phone 8 over Android or iPhone, then it's never going to be able to compete in the smartphone market.

It’s certainly no small feat, and if Microsoft can’t command the market with a gorgeous mobile operating system, functionality that extends across multiple devices, and a line of sleek handsets, then it's doomed to either accept its meager 3-5% slice of the market, or drop out entirely. Either way, a failure for Microsoft is likely to cause a ripple effect across other vendors, most notably Nokia, who has put all of its eggs into Microsoft’s basket.

HTC's Windows Phone 8

However, I’ve seen the Lumia 920 handsets, and had an opportunity to handle the HTC 8X briefly and I can tell you first hand: These are some knockout handsets with beautiful screens and impressive features. People I’ve talked to at HTC and Nokia are genuinely excited about promoting them, and carriers are eager to use Windows Phone 8 as a way to fight against the iPhone’s high subsidies and royalties. But it's going to take more than a pretty face to empower a company to compete with Apple and Google, who have both vigorously defended their turf. It’s going to take a few things, actually.

Outstanding hardware

Really, Windows Phone 8 needs a variety of outstanding hardware. This is something that Android has mastered, and Microsoft could benefit from. If one of your handsets can’t beat the iPhone, maybe ten of them can—especially if each one is offering unique features. While no one can argue that the iPhone isn't a masterful creation, the Galaxy S III is a stunning handset with features like NFC sharing and expandable memory. The camera functionality on the Lumia 920 may prove to be an excellent selling point for Windows Phone 8.

An amazing user experience

The operating system itself must be smooth, flawless, intuitive, exciting, and integrated. You should never have to hunt to find any options or functions, the UI should smoothly adapt to accessories, cloud syncing, music uploads, and backups. Here, Microsoft knows what it's doing at least, in that it has years of experience in creating full-featured operating systems. And because Windows Phone 8 shares some common heritage and design with Windows 8, it could have an advantage here.

Nokia's Lumia 920

Superior marketing

Honestly, here’s where Microsoft has a dire need: If it had say, Don Draper on its side, Windows Phone 8 would be unstoppable. Ads for the Galaxy SIII are plastered across every San Francisco street corner, on the sides of buses, and show up constantly on local TV; that’s the kind of saturation Windows Phone 8 needs. Microsoft has to identify its target market and design a campaign with ads that are clever, a wee bit biting, and very cool will help to spread the word about what Windows Phone 8 can offer Apple and Android fans looking for the next go-to-have-it phone.

An image overhaul

Android is no longer just an open-source upstart, but it maintains its image of freedom and choice. Apple waves the banner of "premium products." But many see Microsoft as an outdated, bloated company way past its prime. A string of misses—from ebooks and search to music and social media—has tarnished its reputation. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 could help to improve the company’s standing in the public eye, as long as Microsoft can prove it has the software that you just can’t live without. There’s a market here for enterprise users, and Microsoft should embrace that potential as well as working to cut its inflated image of an old, overgrown giant. Tech users are getting younger, more experienced, and more demanding, and Microsoft hasn't yet proved it can connect with them.

Samsung's ATIV S

Killer apps, and lots of them

Read: Apps, apps, and oh yeah, more apps. One of the biggest places that Windows Phone has suffered is in the lack of available apps. Apple’s App Store has over 700,000 apps, Google’s Play store has almost that many at 675,000. Windows Phone Store hovers at about 125,000 apps. This is an obvious drawback for users who have come to expect that, for any of their needs “there’s an app for that.” It's not all about numbers, though. The biggest concern is that Windows Phone, to date, is missing a large number of very popular apps. Instagram, Flipboard, Taxi Magic, apps for several major airlines, HBO Go, Pandora...the list goes on and on. Even more troubling are reports that Microsoft has delayed the release of the SDKs to developers, hindering their ability to deliver apps in time for Windows Phone 8’s release. Microsoft: Help them, help you. This needs to improve rapidly if Microsoft wants to change the smartphone landscape from a battle of the big two, to a battle of the big three.

While there's no denying that's quite a list, that is truly what Microsoft needs in order to compete in a major smartphone market. By playing to their strengths, Microsoft could carve out a smartphone segment of its very own but it's going to require a lot of sweat, a lot of talent, some fierce determination, and an abundance of luck. Personally, I'm pulling for them; I'm a fan of the UI, I'm excited by the hardware, and I believe that competition between more smartphones in the end, only benefits the consumer. We'll see how it all shakes down next week.

This story, "Is Windows Phone 8 Microsoft's last chance?" was originally published by TechHive.

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