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Carrier support a must for Windows Phone 8 success

Verizon Wireless says it will offer Windows Phone 8 devices this year. This is good news for Microsoft, which needs strong support from U.S. carriers to take on Apple and Google in the smartphone market.

Microsoft's new Windows Phone 8 devices will hit stores this fall. And support from carriers like Verizon Wireless will be crucial if the company stands a chance of competing with smartphone giants, Apple and Google.

Windows Phone 8 start screen
The Windows Phone start screen will soon come with three tile sizes. Screenshot by Microsoft

Microsoft today took the wraps off Windows Phone 8, the next iteration of its mobile software for smartphones. Device makers Nokia, Huawei, Samsung and HTC have all committed to building Windows Phone 8 devices, Microsoft said. So far all four major wireless carriers, including Verizon Wireless, are onboard as well, which is good news for Microsoft. The big question now is how much support Microsoft will get from these operators. Without carrier support for Windows Phone 8 devices, Microsoft's ambitions to become a leading mobile OS player could turn out to be nothing more than a pipe dream.

AT&T and T-Mobile USA, already big backers of Windows Phone, are the most enthusiastic supporters for Windows Phone 8. But these operators alone can't create success for Microsoft. The company also needs strong support from Verizon Wireless, which to date has taken a "wait-and-see" approach with previous iterations of Windows Phone devices. A spokeswoman for the carrier said Verizon plans to offer Windows 8 devices this year, but it's still unclear how enthusiastically the carrier will back Windows Phone.

AT&T is currently the biggest supporter of Windows Phone devices, offering five different flavors of Windows Phone software on devices from HTC, Samsung, and Nokia. AT&T made a big splash earlier this year with Nokia's flagship Windows Phone, the Lumia 900, here in the U.S.

"AT&T plans to carry a new line of Windows Phone 8 smartphones launching later this year," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T. "The unmatched leader in Windows Phone -- offering the very first 4G LTE Windows Phone smartphones in the U.S. -- AT&T is home to the most robust Windows Phone portfolio of any carrier."

T-Mobile, which also carries Nokia and HTC flavors of current Windows Phone smartphones, is also enthusiastic about the launch of the Windows Phone 8 devices later this year. The carrier says it plans to be a launch partner for Windows 8 smartphones when they're available this fall.

"We're bullish on the future of Windows Phone," Brad Duea, senior vice president of product management at T-Mobile said in a blog post. "In fact, IDC's report out earlier this month predicts Windows Phone will surpass iOS by 2016 -- and we expect Windows Phone to continue to play a prominent role in our product portfolio and marketing efforts."

Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel have traditionally not been very supportive of Windows Phone smartphones. But these carriers are also expected to offer Windows Phone 8 devices. Verizon currently offers only one Windows Phone: the HTC Trophy. And Sprint has two older Windows Phones, one from HTC and a really old device from Motorola.

Earlier this year, Verizon and Sprint decided not to offer their own version of Nokia's Lumia smartphone. Instead, these carriers have focused their attention on selling Google Android and Apple iPhones.

But now it looks like Verizon may finally throw more of its weight behind Windows Phone 8, as well. The spokeswoman for Verizon said the carrier will have Windows Phone 8 devices later this year. But she didn't offer more details. Verizon's CFO Fran Shammo has said publicly the company will offer Windows Phone 8 devices by the end of the year.

A Sprint spokeswoman said that Sprint will offer Windows Phone 8 devices in the future, but she didn't indicate if one will be available this year. Sprint isn't likely to have an extensive portfolio of Windows Phone 8 devices. The company will likely continue to focus most of its attention on the iPhone, which is costing it a bundle to carry.

"Sprint is currently evaluating our plans, and we do plan to carry Windows 8 devices in the future," she said. "We continue to sell three Windows Phone devices including HTC Arrive, Motorola E400S, and HTC Touch Pro 2 (HTC Touch Pro available in limited channels only)."

Verizon support is key
Gaining support from Verizon for Windows Phone 8 is important to Microsoft, mainly because Verizon is so big. It's the largest wireless company by subscriber with 93 million customers in total, of which 88 million are on a contract. Verizon's hesitancy to offer a big Windows Phone portfolio in the past, likely has to do with the fact that the carrier was unsure how the devices would sell. Also, it's been no secret that Microsoft has been working on a version of the software that would integrate the mobile operating system with its computing operating system. Windows Phone 8 finally accomplishes that by using common code found in the Windows 8 PC and tablet OS.

But the big catch for current Windows Phone users is that they will not be able to upgrade to the new Windows Phone 8 software. In other words, Microsoft's older Windows Phone software will once again be obsolete with respect to newer apps and developments for its mobile platform. There's a good chance that Verizon didn't want to invest too heavily in Windows Phone until Microsoft could get a consistent OS. And now that Microsoft has added this functionality, it may appeal to the carrier.

AT&T and T-Mobile say their success with the current generation of Windows Phone 8 devices proves there is an appetite for a third ecosystem in smartphones. In his blog post, T-Mobile's Brad Duea admitted that Android still continues to represent the lion's share of smartphones sold on T-Mobile's faster 4G network. But he said that Windows Phone has seen strong growth with sales more than doubling in the past eight months, thanks to the Nokia Lumia 710 and HTC Radar 4G.

In fact, the Nokia Lumia 710 has consistently been one of the top-five selling smartphones on T-Mobile since it launched in January 2012. The company has also seen many feature-phone customers migrating to smartphones on the Windows Phone platform. In fact, 55 percent of all upgrades to the Lumia 710 are coming from a messaging or feature phone.

And now T-Mobile says it expects to see even stronger growth with the Windows Phone 8 software.

The biggest benefit of the new software is that it uses the same basic building blocks as Microsoft's Windows 8 OS for tablets and PCs, which will allow developers to provide a consistent and integrated experience among smartphones, tablets, PCs and any other computing devices using the software.

Important features of the new software include support for multicore chips, a built-in digital wallet hub, and improvements to multitasking that will make it possible to allow video calling and navigation to run in the background while other apps also run.

Microsoft also announced support for Nokia's Navteq map technology, which will provide maps and turn-by-turn navigation. And the service will be available offline as well as online.

All in all, the new revamped software helps put Windows Phone on par with its toughest competitors Apple iOS and Google Android devices.

But even though these features may be cool, and even though they may provide big enhancements to the previous generation of Windows Phone software, without carrier support for devices running the Windows 8 software, Microsoft will continue to be nothing more than a niche player. At this point we'll have to see just how committed carriers like Verizon will be.