By Michael Fisher | January 25, 2013 9:57 AM
After a dry spell of almost unprecedented proportions, it looks like Windows Phone is finally making its way back to America’s number-three carrier. That’s not necessarily the biggest news of the quarter, but there’s a few reasons this new development should have fans of Microsoft’s platform cheering.
First, some back-story. Sprint may be the last nationwide carrier to get on board with the current version of Windows Phone, but it was there for the last go-round. The carrier launched the Windows Phone 7-powered HTC Arrive -the CDMA version of the HTC 7 Pro- way back in March 2011. While its spacious keyboard and robust build quality were nothing to sneeze at, the device remained the lone Windows Phone in Sprint’s stable until the carrier discontinued Windows Phone sales entirely almost a year and a half later.
Sprint claimed its lack of commitment to the Windows Phone platform stemmed from a high return rate on the Arrive, a problem it said resulted from issues with the “user experience.” Despite the predictable furor this touched off within the Windows Phone fan community, Sprint stood its ground, publicly maintaining that Microsoft would need to deliver some sizable improvements if Big Yellow was to sell WP devices again. And indeed, Sprint had bigger fish to fry: it had just signed a 20 billion dollar deal with Apple for the right to sell the iPhone, and it’s likely there was pressure from the top for the company to focus only on guaranteed profit-makers. In late 2011 and early 2012, that wasn’t Windows Phone.
But the situation has since changed. The new iteration of Windows Phone, version 8, launched in June with a slew of new features and a much more robust app ecosystem. New hardware from vendors like Nokia and HTC has since arrived on the scene, bringing a splash of color and refined industrial design to Microsoft’s platform. Microsoft has re-invested in a mind-share push, littering the streets and airwaves with ads for its new Windows-powered smartphones and tablets. The platform might still be nascent, but it’s clear to everyone that this time, Microsoft isn’t taking no for an answer.
That helps explain Sprint’s recent change of heart, news of which started as a trickle and quickly grew into a full-on dam burst. In two short weeks, we’ve gone from no Windows Phone on Sprint to a promise of mysterious, modern, and new yellow-painted WP8 smartphones before the first half of 2013 ends.
That’s quite a reversal, but the question remains: why should we care? Verizon Wireless and AT&T have each been selling Windows Phones for some time, and even T-Mobile has gotten in on the action. Why should advocates for Microsoft’s platform -and indeed, Microsoft itself- care about Sprint’s paltry 55 million subscribers?
You must’ve seen the setup for this one a mile away. The first reason we should care is right there in that subscriber count. Sprint may be #3 in the US, but 55 million is a big number. That’s a lot of customers, each one a possible convert from the lands of iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and dumbphone purgatory. Plus, there’s the added bonus of the three million or so stragglers remaining on the Nextel National Network, folks who will be needing new phones when the iDEN network goes dark in June.
But surely, you say, the customers who wanted a Windows Phone device badly enough have already switched to one of the larger, more Microsoft-friendly carriers, or they’re planning to do so when their contracts expire.
Well-argued, my imaginary opponent. That’s no doubt true for some of those folks, but not nearly as many as you might think. That’s because Sprint possesses a powerful retention tool in the form of its simplified plan structure, award-winning customer service, and -most importantly- it’s promise of “truly unlimited data.” In this world of throttling, data ceilings, and other nastiness foisted on customers by the larger carriers, Sprint is making a point of providing truly limitless cellular data:
If you were a (current or prospective) Sprint customer, would you want your Windows Phone on any other network?
Finally, though Sprint is unquestionably big-time, with its multibillion-dollar deals and its multimillion-person network, remember that it has a long way to go to reach healthy. The company has spent years trying to recover from its disastrous merger with Nextel, and it’s only recently begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel – and even that much took a major investment from overseas to accomplish. Sprint is still very much trying to rise from the ashes of near-destruction. So it can’t afford to be halfhearted in its new embrace of Windows Phone.
The company has taken pains to point out that it’s not seeking to launch “six-month-old hardware” when it reboots its Windows Phone offering later this year. That, plus the mystery HTC device mentioned above, stands as a good sign. It means Sprint is taking Windows Phone seriously, that it has faith in the new platform to help it attain the growth the company so desperately needs. Granted, this dual-desperado approach doesn’t always result in a glowing outcome -witness the Palm Pre debacle of 2009- but that analogy doesn’t fit all that well here. Microsoft, as I said above, isn’t going anywhere, and (thanks to Softbank) neither is Sprint. These companies have committed to putting Windows Phone on yet another nationwide store shelf, and backing it up with the most valuable LTE data plan in the country. If that’s not a reason to get excited, I don’t know what is.