The software giant on Sunday unveiled plans to release a reference design based on its mobile operating system and using Qualcomm hardware. Basically, that means anyone -- from established handset vendors like HTC to PC makers like Hewlett-Packard -- can build phones relatively quickly and cheaply. If the companies want, they can essentially slap their own branding on the device from Microsoft.
"We're open for business on Windows Phone to anyone who wants to build a Windows Phone," said Nick Parker, the Microsoft executive who manages the company's relationships with hardware companies.Along with the reference design, Microsoft also unveiled its new Windows Hardware Partner Portal to give support to device makers.
Providing companies with such an easy way to create devices could be key for Microsoft as it tries to get more vendors to use its operating system. So far, Nokia sells the vast majority of Windows Phones, and that's likely to become even more true after Microsoft closes its purchase of the company. There have been questions about how many companies will be interested in Windows Phone following Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia.
The device is based on processors from Qualcomm, the world's biggest provider of wireless chip technology. Microsoft and Qualcomm have partnered closely on Windows Phone devices, with Qualcomm's application processors powering the vast majority of Windows mobile devices on the market.
The reference devices will use either Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 or 400 series processors, the company's lowest-end chips. That allows for mass-market phones that cost less than $100 or $200, Cristiano Amon, co-president of Qualcomm's mobile and computing business, told CNET.
"There's no question that emerging markets provides a very large growth opportunity for mobile," Amon said.
Windows Phone has received praise from reviewers, but that hasn't equated to blockbuster sales. Last year, handset vendors shipped 33.4 million Windows Phone devices globally, giving the operating system a market share of 3.3 percent, according to IDC. That's up from Windows Phone's share of 2.4 percent in 2012, and marks a near doubling of the growth rate for the overall smartphone market. However, the operating system still greatly lags the positions of Android and iOS.
Nokia, meanwhile, has dominated the bulk of Windows Phones' shipments, with about 89 percent of such devices coming from the company in 2013. The Finnish company made a big bet on the operating system a couple years ago, shunning its own operating system and Android in favor of Microsoft's software. Since that time, the two companies have partnered closely, and Nokia soon emerged as the favored Windows Phone vendor. Microsoft announced in September that it planned to buy Nokia for $7.2 billion.
However, Microsoft knows that if it wants Windows Phone to become a big player in mobile, it needs more vendors to support the operating system. And emerging markets, in particular, represent a big opportunity. The lower-end segment is expected to grow much more than the high end over the next several years.
Parker said during Microsoft's press conference Sunday that many new companies will start working on Windows Phone. Previously, the only companies supporting the operating system were HTC, Huawei, Nokia, and Samsung. Now, that will expand to LG, ZTE, Lenovo, Foxconn, and many other companies.
"Just these partnerships alone represent 56 percent of the world's smartphone shipments," Parker said. He noted that more partnerships will come in the future, as well.