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No Big Bang for Windows Phone this year

In contrast to last year's preholiday "big shot," Microsoft plans a steady marketing ramp-up and a staggered release of new phones.

A giant Windows Phone set up in Herald Square in Manhattan as part of its recently kicked off marketing campaign.
Roger Cheng/CNET

Microsoft says it's learned its lesson from its disappointing Windows Phone promotion last year.

Windows Phone President Andy Lees said he expects a steady stream of product releases over the next few months, as well as a marketing campaign that will rely more on its vendor and carriers partners. That contrasts with Microsoft's strategy from a year ago, when the company launched several phones at once in a pre-holiday blitz, meanwhile also shouldering much of the promotional burden itself.

Result: Microsoft struggled to make a significant dent in the market.

Microsoft hosted an event in New York today to drum up attention for Windows Phone. The conference marks the start of another major push by the software titan to raise awareness for its mobile operating system.

Critics have praised the unique user interface of Windows Phone, but the OS has yet to climb out of the shadow of Apple's iOS and Google's Android platform. Furthermore, Microsoft's relatively staid reputation does little to attract customers already drawn to the cool factor emanating from Apple and Google.

Windows Phone President Andy Lees at an event today. Roger Cheng/CNET

"The big challenge is countering the momentum of iOS and Android," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis. "Going after first-time users, or someone upgrading from feature phones, makes sense because they haven't bought into a platform yet."

Windows Phone so far remains just a blip on the smartphone radar. As of the second quarter, Microsoft's platform represented 1.6 percent of the global market for smartphone operating systems, according to Gartner. In comparison, Android controlled 43.4 percent of the market. Windows Phone ranked below Bada, Samsung's home-grown operating system only found in a few markets.

Windows Phone launched roughly a year ago to much fanfare from Microsoft but few others. While the company had the support of longtime partners such as Samsung Electronics and HTC, those companies had put more of their resources into Android. Likewise, the carriers made little effort to push the products, focusing on the better known mobile platforms. AT&T was the most vocal partner, offering three Windows Phone devices at launch, but only saw modest adoption.

Microsoft hopes things work out differently this time around. After the initial launch, much of the company's momentum fizzled away as consumers gravitated toward high-end Android phones and the iPhone. But Microsoft expects its handset manufacturing partners and carriers around the world to spend more on marketing.

Lees said the total marketing effort will be much larger, but will be spread over a longer period. He declined to specify the total, saying he wasn't sure himself.

In Europe, Nokia is already saturating the airwaves with Nokia Windows Phone commercials, Lees said. He added that he expects the U.S. carriers to step up their advertising next year, when Windows Phone will be able to support 4G LTE technology. Lees declined to say when the feature would be available to the platform.

Earlier this year, Microsoft released a major update to the operating system, Windows Phone 7.5, or Mango, which again drew applause from wireless industry observers. The early phones point to Microsoft's strategy. The HTC Radar for T-Mobile USA, which is already out, is free after a rebate. The Samsung Focus Flash for AT&T sells for $49.99.

Still, a true flagship may be required to grab consumers' attention. "Breaking through may require something at the high end that gets people's attention," Greengart said.

Microsoft, however, wants to emphasize exactly the opposite, and is pushing hard on the notion that it has more affordable phones.

"We will have a variety of price points, but maintaining the quality of the phones," Lees said at the event. "We're excited about it."

Lees stressed that the lower priced phones don't sacrifice on quality. He said that the user interface on its lower end phones will work better than high-end Android phones because of the hardware acceleration.

"We don't compromise on the user experience," he said.

As part of its campaign, Microsoft erected a giant Windows Phone in by the Macy's flagship store in Manhattan's Herald Square. The giant phone--150 times the size of a regular phone--will feature true "live tiles," including the band "Far East Movement" playing a mini concert within the phone, as well as live updates from Accuweather.