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Who has the 'real' Windows Phone? HTC makes its case

Nokia may have gotten a ton of support from Microsoft, but HTC's smartphones carry the actual Windows Phone 8 name.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and HTC CEO Peter Chou hold up the Windows Phone 8X and 8S. Sarah Tew/CNET

With its Windows Phone 8X and 8S smartphones, has HTC actually replaced Nokia as the darling of Microsoft?

Ever since Microsoft veteran Stephen Elop took the reins at Nokia and struck a transformational deal with his former company to fully back Windows Phone, it was assumed that the fallen Finnish mobile devices giant would be first among equals when it came to the upstart mobile operating system.

Elop assumed the role when he said a year ago that Nokia's Lumia handsets were "the first real Windows Phone," a not-so-subtle jab against earlier efforts, and a comment Microsoft has never really walked back or contested.

But fast forward to today, and it's HTC -- and not Nokia -- looking like Microsoft's BFF. HTC's phones carry the actual Windows Phone 8 name in them, and may eventually be synonymously linked to the platform.

"The Windows Phone 8X is truly a hero product," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, essentially blessing it as the flagship Windows Phone product.

HTC is also doing some jabbing of its own.

"It's the true hero that Windows Phone has been waiting for," said Scott Croyle, head of design for HTC, noting that no previous phone really fulfilled the potential of the operating system.

The branding of the phone is a coup for HTC, which is badly in need of a win after rolling through a so-so year with its flagship One line of Android smartphones. With Samsung Electronics extending its lead in the Android world, HTC could lean more on Windows Phone for its turnaround. The 8X and 8S are expected to get wider distribution than the One phones in the U.S.

Microsoft, meanwhile, appears to be readying a large wave of Windows Phone 8 launches, with Samsung, Nokia, and HTC already committed to its platform. The company has a lot riding on the success of the mobile platform, which directly ties into its Windows 8 operating system for tablets and PCs, and which could determine whether the software giant will have an important role in the new wireless tech world.

Whether HTC is now a Microsoft favorite son remains debatable, and Nokia would surely argue its phones are just as impressive, if not more. Ballmer made an appearance at HTC's event today, just as he did at Nokia's Windows Phone 8 event two weeks ago. Given the importance of Windows Phone 8, he may pop up at even more Windows Phone events ahead of its launch.

But HTC's rhetoric suggests it has the full backing of Microsoft.

"You can talk about 'real phones,' but hey, we've got the name," HTC representative Jeff Gordon told CNET.

Gauntlet thrown down
In planning for Windows Phone 8, Microsoft and Steve Ballmer challenged HTC CEO Peter Chou to develop a winning smartphone. Chou, in turn, went to his own engineering team with the challenge.

HTC's Windows Phone 8X comes in different colors. Brian Bennett/CNET

"The gauntlet was thrown down by Microsoft to HTC," Gordon said.

HTC showed a prototype of the device to Microsoft at Mobile World Congress. Terry Myerson, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Phone program, said that at the time he questioned whether a working model would actually remain so thin.

So when HTC came back with early working versions that fulfilled the promise of the prototype, Microsoft came away impressed.

"There were some ooohs and ahhhs," Gordon said.

It was at that point that Microsoft and HTC started talking about the branding of the phone. While Nokia had the Lumia line, and Samsung had its own recently unveiled ATIV line -- and prior to that, Omnia -- HTC didn't have a family name for its Windows Phone devices.

"There are just a few big brand that are resonating right now," said Jason MacKenzie, president and head of marketing and sales for HTC. "We want to build a brand that was big and differentiated."

Myerson: "We want to build meaning into the Windows Phone 8 brand."

Neither MacKenzie or Myerson would pinpoint when they came up with the name, only saying they had come up with the idea of a singular brand to get behind, and that they had many ongoing discussions that evolved into the Windows Phone 8X and 8S.

HTC's hope is that when a consumer goes into a carrier store asking for a Windows Phone product, the sales staff recommends its phones. Of course, the trick is getting consumers to care about Windows Phone in the first place.

MacKenzie recently told CNET that the company plans to go bolder in establishing its identity with consumers and talking up the advantages of its products. The 8X and 8S represent its first chance to go aggressive with consumers, something it plans to do with Microsoft.

The Windows Phone 8X and 8S represent the largest launch HTC has ever done with Microsoft, he said.

Myerson said Microsoft had a big campaign planned for both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, but declined to talk about its size or scope.

Role reversal
The use of different colors, a focus on industrial design, and a superior camera sound familiar, right? These are some of the features Nokia highlighted in its own unveiling of its Windows Phone 8-powered Lumia devices two weeks ago.

There are a lot of similarities between the two lines of smartphones, from some of the features down to the two lines of devices: a high-end flagship model and a more affordable mass-market version. It seemed like just a few months ago, Nokia had the coveted spot as Microsoft's big Windows Phone partner.

Steve Ballmer and Stephen Elop at Microsoft-Nokia event in New York, 9/5/12
Steve Ballmer and Stephen Elop at Microsoft-Nokia event in New York two weeks ago. Sarah Tew/CNET

Nokia has had its fair share of publicity and marketing support this year. HTC had a strong Windows Phone option in the Titan II this year, but the Nokia Lumia 900 overshadowed the phone. That's because AT&T, Microsoft, and Nokia collaborated on a marketing blitz for the Lumia 900, blanketing the airwaves and the Internet with commercials.

While Nokia is expected to make a big push, it remains to be seen how Microsoft will back its various partners.

Myerson was reluctant to talk about Microsoft playing favorites, and even floated the idea that better recognition for Windows Phone 8 through HTC's phones could actually help its other handset partners. He noted that the other partners have already invested in their own brands for Windows Phone.

Nokia agreed with the assessment. A company representative told CNET that the launch represented good news for the Windows Phone ecosystem, but touted the Lumia line as one that is "truly differentiated."

It's still unclear how hard the carriers will push these phones. Nokia and HTC's phones presumably will be available at a number of the large U.S. carriers. Nokia hasn't talked about carrier partnerships yet. HTC, meanwhile, said the availability of its phones in the U.S. would be wider than that of its One series, which only got support from AT&T and T-Mobile USA. AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile are slated to get the Windows Phone 8X or the 8S.

"We feel extremely strong support from the carriers," MacKenzie said.

When it came to its Windows Phone product, HTC worked mostly in the shadows this year. With Windows Phone 8 poised to get a big push by Microsoft, perhaps it's HTC's moment.