Focus: A closer look at the nine new Windows Phone partners

For several months, the rumour mill has churned out various nuggets of information here and there, suggesting that numerous manufacturers have been considering launching Windows Phones in the near future. Over the weekend, just ahead of the opening of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced that, in fact, a grand total of nine new hardware partners have now been added to the existing four.

The devil, as always, is in the detail. Of these nine, two have previously offered Windows Phones, but subsequently abandoned the platform before Windows Phone 8 was launched. Of the remaining seven, three are ODMs, or original design manufacturers. In a nutshell, ODMs build devices for other companies. An ODM might design and build a particular device to a brand’s specifications, or it may design and build its own in-house devices, and allow other companies to customise, brand and sell those devices as their own.

Most ODMs remain largely unknown – they create white-label products which are deliberately debranded. One of the most famous ODMs has now moved on from its origins to become one of the world’s best known smartphone brands – for many years, devices across the world from many brands were created by High Tech Computer Co, better known today as HTC. But in most cases, ODM brands remain hidden away, while other brands take their place when the products are sold.

This is potentially significant, given that so many of Windows Phone’s new sign-ups are ODMs – while we may see Windows Phones go on sale that are created by these companies, there’s a good chance that they will be sold with other manufacturers’ logos on them. Many of the best known device brands – including Apple, Nokia, BlackBerry and countless others – recruit ODMs to build their devices for them.

Given that there are so many names joining the platform – and so many unfamiliar ones too – we thought it would be helpful to take a look at these latest additions to Windows Phone.

 


When it comes to ODMs, Foxconn is a true giant. The company develops and manufactures products for some of the world’s leading tech brands, including Apple, Microsoft, Sony, BlackBerry and Amazon.

It really is no exaggeration to say that, if you’re a true tech-head, there’s a good chance that you have, at some point, owned a device manufactured by Foxconn. Kindles, BlackBerrys, iPads, iPods, iPhones, the Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3… the list is long, and the range is extensive.

Most recently, BlackBerry signed a deal with Foxconn for the Taiwanese giant to produce some of its lower-end handsets. Under the agreement, Foxconn is being contracted to design and build the hardware, leaving BlackBerry to manage only its BB10 OS. However, it is not clear under which terms Foxconn will build Windows Phone handsets, as Microsoft announced.

Foxconn does not sell devices under its own brand, so we can reasonably expect that any Windows Phones that it builds will be for other companies. Foxconn has built devices for Micromax in the past – could it build the promised Windows Phone for the Indian smartphone vendor? Or will we see Foxconn open up the Windows Phone OS to an even broader range of brands? 

 


Gionee offers a range of devices, including a selection of smartphones, across China, large chunks of Asia, India, and as far afield as Russia and Nigeria. The Chinese manufacturer claims that it exports one million devices a month to its overseas markets.

One of its leading devices is the Elife E7, marketed under the tagline ‘made for shooting’, along with some weird visuals involving a young guy with various details highlighted in blue. The device itself features a 5.5-inch Full HD display, 3GB RAM, 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, 16MP camera, and up to 32GB of storage, with seven handset colour options on offer. The OS is described as “Amigo 2.0 – based on Android 4.2”... whatever that means. 

Gionee made headlines this week by claiming the crown for the world’s thinnest smartphone, with its 5.55mm-thick Elife S5.5. Before that, though, it is likely that many of you will never have even heard of Gionee.

The company’s plans for Windows Phone have not been announced. However, a major advantage of Windows Phone 8.1 is that it can be loaded onto Android devices without hardware buttons, and sold as Windows Phones (with support for on-screen Back, Start and Search buttons). We would certainly welcome the prospect of a 5.55mm-thick Windows Phone. 

 


The Chinese tech giant has been expanding mercilessly of late, with the recent acquisition of IBM’s lower-end server business and, more relevantly, the purchase of Motorola Mobility from Google’s lumbering paws.

Lenovo already had a pretty decent smartphone business before the Motorola acquisition – as we reported last month, Lenovo was the fifth largest smartphone vendor (by device shipments) according to data from IDC, with 45.5m devices shipped in 2013, equating to 4.5% of the market. With Motorola now part of the family, Lenovo has effectively leapfrogged the next two largest manufacturers – LG and Huawei – making it the world’s number three smartphone vendor.

And yet, despite this prowess in the smartphone market – and despite offering perhaps the most impressive and comprehensive line-up of Windows 8.x tablets, notebooks, hybrids and PCs among any manufacturer – Lenovo has never offered a Windows Phone. Neither, for that matter, has Motorola (although, once upon a time, it did create Windows Mobile devices).

Only Lenovo was mentioned in Microsoft’s press release naming its new Windows Phone partners, but perhaps there is a sliver of hope for those hoping to see Motorola offering WP devices in the future. Even so, Lenovo has a pretty sweet range of devices available, so it will be worth seeing what it has in store for the Windows Phone platform – will its WP handsets be unique, or will they just be Android clones running a different OS?

 


LG is one of two OEMs that Microsoft cited as “new” additions to Windows Phone, but which are, in fact, returning to the platform. LG was actually one of the launch partners for Windows Phone 7, way back in 2010, and the Optimus 7 and Quantum were part of the original line-up of devices.

But while other WP manufacturers scrambled to launch new devices to coincide with the major Windows Phone 7.5 ‘Mango’ update, LG only offered a recycled version of its Optimus 7. When Microsoft came to announce its Windows Phone OS ‘reboot’ with WP8 in June 2012, LG had completely lost its appetite for the platform, and its logo was conspicuously absent from the list of launch partners.

It’s not clear just what has changed since then to get LG on board, but Microsoft certainly seems to think that they have, having already proudly announced as much to the world. Curiously, however, LG appears to have a completely different take on the matter.

Since Microsoft’s announcement, LG has said that it has no plans in the near future to launch any new Windows Phone handsets – and given that LG currently sells no Windows Phone 8 devices, and that it stopped selling its WP7.x devices long ago, one has to wonder what exactly has led Microsoft to believe that LG should be noted as a platform partner.

For now, it all seems a bit odd.

 


You may not have heard of Chinese ODM Longcheer, but it has some pretty big clients, including China Unicom, China Mobile, Alcatel and 3 – as well as one or two brands found elsewhere in this article, in the form of Lenovo and Gionee.

Given its prestigious clientele, the company’s website is disturbingly outdated – not so much in terms of its user experience (although that is also lacking), but rather in the currency of the information shared on it. Browse through the site and you would be forgiven for thinking it was 2010, given the obsolete devices on show.

But Longcheer currently manufactures smartphones and dongles for numerous brands across the world, and its expertise in modern devices is greater than its abandoned website would suggest. However, it remains to be seen which brands Longcheer will build Windows Phones for.

 


Like Longcheer, JSR Technology is an ODM. Based in Hong Kong, the company currently offers a range of six Android devices, which are available to other companies to customise and package as their own.

The range of devices shown on the company’s site is fairly lacklustre; many have under 1GB of RAM or limited onboard storage, while none feature the most modern Android versions, languishing instead on 4.1 Jelly Bean, rather than the latest 4.4.2 KitKat.

It is unclear what will differentiate JSR’s Windows Phone offerings from other devices, particularly given that there are already so many capable and well-featured handsets available at very affordable prices.

 


Karbonn Mobiles will be familiar to friends and followers of Neowin in India, where the brand is one of the country’s leading smartphone vendors. The company boasts that it launches new devices faster, and at a higher rate, than many of its domestic rivals.

Beyond India, Karbonn’s brand has considerable international reach, extending as far as Africa and the Middle East, as well as across the region closer to home, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Karbonn offers an enormous range of devices, from a plethora of feature phones (including T9 keypads!), all the way up to the flagship Titanium X, with a Full HD display, 13MP camera and 16GB of storage + microSD support.

Keen pricing is key to Karbonn’s success in many developing markets. Massive sales of Nokia’s Lumia 520 have shown that Windows Phones can sell in immense numbers at the right price, so we eagerly look forward to seeing what Karbonn has planned for its devices.  

 


Indian manufacturer XOLO is a relative newcomer to the industry, having only launched in 2012. Nonetheless, it was quick to grab world headlines, becoming the first OEM to offer a smartphone featuring an Intel processor, with the launch of the XOLO X900 in April 2012.

The company has also scored (ha!) a regional sponsorship deal with soccer giants Liverpool FC – a signal of the brand’s ambitions in wanting to extend its audience and grow its sales. XOLO currently offers a broad range of Android handsets, extending up to the flagship Q3000, which includes a 5.7-inch Full HD display, 2GB of RAM, 1.5GHz quad-core processor and 13MP camera, for 21,000 INR (around $340 USD).

Back in December, Vishal Sehgal, co-founder and director of XOLO, told The Economic Times of India that his company would soon be launching its first Windows Phones. Sehgal noted that there would be more than one device on offer, and that the handsets would be priced in the $150 to $300 range.

Sehgal added that XOLO plans to offer Windows tablets, in addition to Windows Phones.

 


Alongside LG, ZTE is the second manufacturer among these nine listed so far to have previously offered Windows Phones. ZTE’s last such device was released alongside the Windows Phone 7.5 ‘Mango’ update – like LG, ZTE’s logo was conspicuously absent from Microsoft’s list of Windows Phone 8 launch partners.

Since then, ZTE has been putting all of its eggs in the Android basket, although with high-profile launches from other Android manufacturers such as LG, HTC, Samsung, Motorola and now even Nokia, you would be forgiven for forgetting that ZTE is still going.

But ZTE offers a diverse range of devices, from affordable lower-end handsets to flagships like the decent Grand S and the giant Grand Memo phablet. But more recently, the company has shown that it is not exclusively loyal to Android. At last year’s Mobile World Congress, ZTE announced the world’s first Firefox OS device – which, sadly, turned out to be pretty miserable – and its return to the Windows Phone flock is a significant move.

With Firefox OS, ZTE demonstrated that it was undeterred by the challenge of taking an under-developed platform and working with it to package it into something good. This is exactly the kind of thinking that Windows Phone needs now as it moves into what Microsoft hopes will be a period of significant growth.

 

The nine brands listed above join the four existing Windows Phone hardware partners, which Microsoft also named in its recent announcement:

 


Remember the announcement of the ‘Windows Phone 8X by HTC’ and its 8S sibling? Despite Nokia’s share of the platform already growing rapidly by the time Windows Phone 8 was launched in late 2012, Microsoft touted HTC as the makers of its ‘signature’ devices for the new OS.

This supposed prestige ultimately amounted to little, although this is perhaps unsurprising, given how quickly HTC’s marketing of the devices tailed off, in favour of an almost exclusive focus on promoting its One-series handsets. Today, HTC’s share of the already-small Windows Phone market is tiny.

This raises questions about what HTC’s plans are for the platform. Microsoft named HTC as a continued partner this week, but it is unclear on what basis it is doing so. It is understood that HTC had actually planned to launch a new Windows Phone at the end of last year, but that device mysteriously failed to appear.

That said, HTC may see the larger and more diverse hardware ecosystem that Microsoft announced over the weekend as a new opportunity to capture more share of a bigger Windows Phone market. Given the company’s hardships in competing against Samsung, HTC could return to Windows Phone with greater enthusiasm – or it could simply double-down on Android and hit back at its rivals with everything it’s got. Time will tell – but the prolonged lack of information from HTC is worrying.

 


Before Lenovo purchased Motorola, Huawei’s 4.9% share of the global smartphone market last year made it the number three handset vendor (by device shipments) in the world, according to IDC. The combined totals of Lenovo and Moto effectively push Huawei down into fourth place, for now, but that’s nothing to be sniffed at. With 48.8m handsets shipped last year, it beat LG, Nokia, BlackBerry and many others – and that number represents immense growth of 67.5% year-on-year.

It perhaps says more about the state of the Windows Phone ecosystem than about Huawei itself that such a massive player in the smartphone industry has so far shipped just two Windows Phone 8 handsets, over a year apart.

Both the Ascend W1 and W2 are capable, decent devices, but neither is a true range-topper. While Huawei offers many more capable and interesting Android handsets, its Windows Phones are simple, affordable and largely unremarkable, albeit with one or two interesting flourishes.

Will Huawei extend its Windows Phone range further? There have been hints of a higher-end device in the works, and this sounds like it would be a valuable addition to better establish Huawei as a strong player in a Windows Phone space filled with more competition. Huawei, of course, is saying nothing, for now.  

 


Like the other three manufacturers listed here at the end of this article, Samsung was one of the launch partners for Windows Phone 8, but its commitment to the platform hasn’t exactly been full-throated. At the WP8 launch, Samsung revealed its ATIV S, which most observers quickly realised was a lightly reworked Galaxy S III.

Since then, Samsung has released a second mid-range device, the ATIV Odyssey, a largely capable handset, albeit with a mediocre display, weak camera and bland design. The only other Samsung Windows Phone so far has been the ATIV S Neo, a mildly updated version of the S.

Samsung’s share of Windows Phone sales is pitifully small; it is a tiny fish in a tiny pond. Almost a third of the one billion handsets shipped last year was a Samsung - well over 300m Android devices in total, a 43% increase year-on-year. Samsung doesn’t need Windows Phone, at all.

The company hasn’t given any hints of its plans for the platform, but there have been rumours of a new device on the way. Various reports have pointed to the handset featuring a 1080p display, hinting at a higher-end device, while some believe that it will launch with Windows Phone 8.1. Indeed, as with many of the brands listed here, it is likely that we will learn more once Microsoft has made WP8.1 official at its BUILD conference in April.

 


Soon after this article is published – perhaps in a matter of days or weeks – the deal will be done. Microsoft will take over Nokia’s devices and services business, and the Finnish company will no longer make phones. This is immensely significant for Windows Phone, as Nokia currently accounts for over 90% of the platform’s sales.

We know there are at least two new Windows Phones waiting to be unveiled – the Lumia 630 and Lumia 635. These mid-range devices will include features such as dual-SIM support and affordable 4G connectivity. Both handsets may well be revealed before the takeover is complete.

Beyond that, however, what Microsoft has planned for the Lumia range, and where Android fits into all this, is currently anyone’s guess. There are many unanswered questions, and many will remain unanswered until after the two companies announce that the deal has been finalised.


What do you think about the new additions to Windows Phone? Are you happy to see LG and ZTE back? Are there are any brands that you wish were on Microsoft's list - Sony, Micromax or Motorola perhaps? Would you miss any of the existing brands - what if Samsung pulled out of Windows Phone? Let us know your thoughts below!

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