Microsoft is ready for its Droid moment

Will Microsoft's push on one particular phone help Windows Phone in general?

Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform needs much more third-party developer interest. It needs buy-in from carriers and manufacturers, who tend to favor the more customizable Android and the popular iPhone alternatives. But if a BetaNews report pans out, Microsoft must think what Windows Phone really needs is its own version of a Droid--a heavily marketed, easily recognizable version of its operating system that nobody in the U.S. can avoid hearing about.

Nokia's Lumia 800 phone

Back in October 2009, there were already Android phones, but more people knew about Android phones in general than any specific reason to buy any particular phone. Actually, most of my friends and relatives just called them “Google phones.” But Verizon decided it wanted a unique look, name, and marketing push for its first Android phone. In Europe, the black phone with the hard edges, darkly futuristic look and feel, and slide-out keyboard was known as the Motorola Milestone. In the U.S., Verizon and Motorola, after reaching a licensing agreement with the firm behind George Lucas’ Star Wars properties, rolled out the Motorola Droid.

Motorola, Verizon, and its implicit partner Google (which gave the Droid a few months of exclusive access to Android 2.0 and its turn-by-turn navigation system) didn’t just release a phone and tell the TV-watching public that it was fast, smart, and had apps. They took direct aim at Apple, releasing ads that pointed at every major possible advantage the Droid had over the iPhone with a [series of “iDon’t” statements]( They deliberately contrasted and parodied Apple’s inclusive, calm, white-washed aesthetic with ads showing the Droid deployed as tactical cyborg ordinance dropped from the imposing skies.

The three partners spent around $100 million for the initial launch campaign, and many hundreds of millions since to promote other Droid-branded phones. The net effect was a very successful phone, a decent foothold in the smartphone market, and, it’s worth pointing out, confusion ever since between “Android” and “Droid” phones.

BetaNews cites sources close to Microsoft as stating that a similar coalition will form around the Lumia 800, a Nokia-made phone that will first be available exclusively on AT&T. And the purported price tag is a familiar $100 million. AT&T, for its part, will make the phone, possibly marketed as the “Ace,” a “hero” phone in its stores, giving it prominent signage and pushing its sales people to place a priority on selling the phone.

On the one hand, Microsoft’s Windows Phone could stand to get out there and be compared to its competitors. Windows Phone is a unique, often strikingly different smartphone system, and it often looks and flows great, on the right kind of hardware. But that’s when we’re talking about the standard applications. There are some definite third-party standards in the Windows Marketplace, including Facebook, Spotify, and Yelp, but there are many apps and games familiar to iPhone and Android veterans that are missing, or poorly represented by modest knock-offs. There are many smartphone owners who mostly use their smartphones for browsing and email, but in my own experience, a steady trickle of announcements of neat apps “available for iPhone and Android” can eat away at someone’s confidence in their phone as a platform worth keeping around.

So it’s important for Microsoft to put one easily remembered phone on a $100 million pedestal. But it’s equally important for all the partners in this deal to make Windows Phone a place where developers believe they can find a new, paying marketplace for their apps.

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