We used to sell several units a day. Before the Chinese phones started coming,” the executive at a Microsoft (formerly Nokia) store in Delhi is pretty clear about what really sent his brand’s fortunes into decline. And he does have a point. For while many might talk of the impact the high-performance-at-low-price phones from (mainly) Chinese brands have had on established Android smartphone giants like Samsung, LG, Sony and HTC, one of the lesser known casualties of the Chinese assault has been Windows Phone.

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If that sounds difficult, cast your mind three years back to 2013. Android was getting severely fragmented between the haves and the have nots – on the one hand, you had extremely powerful flagship devices that delivered many a dollop for many a Dollar in performance terms, and on the other you had budget devices that were best for basic browsing a bit of social networking and e-mail. There was a mid-section between the two as well, but even that was a significant step down from the flagships, who occupied a price zone of their own. “You want to play, you got to pay,” was pretty much the market wisdom going around at that time. Yes, there were affordable Android devices but they came with performance and hardware compromises – poor quality displays, mediocre cameras, old versions of Android (with few, if any, update assurances) and designs that often were visual assaults.

And it was at this time that Nokia had seemingly sown the seeds of a Windows Phone revolution with the Lumia 520 in April 2013. Until the release of that device, Windows Phone too had been seen at its best mainly in the upper price echelons – the lower priced devices like the Lumia 510 and 610 came with their own compromises on performance. The Lumia 520, however, was pretty much a bolt from the blue. Running Windows Phone 8, it had a 4.0-inch 800 x 480 display, 8 GB storage (expandable using a memory card, which was not possible in the first generation Windows Phone devices) and a 5.0-megapixel camera with autofocus. No, it did not come with the a front facing camera or NFC but the selfie revolution had not yet caught on, and well NFC was not a rage (it is not even now, but that’s another story). All this at a price of Rs 10,499 (about USD 160) initially but which had beneath the psychological barrier of Rs 10,000 (USD 150) at some places within a few weeks of the device’s launch.

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Yes, there were Android devices at that price point too, but – and this is quite a BUT – they came with more significant price compromises than the Lumia 520 did. The Lumia 520 was a far smoother performer (Windows Phone 8 was wonderfully lag-free for most basic tasks even on relatively low specced devices) than any Android phone at its price point and indeed better than some above it. So apparent was the difference in performance that the Lumia 520 sold like hot cakes and rose to become not just the highest selling Windows Phone ever (more than 12 million units) but was also for a while the highest selling smartphone at the sub-Rs 10,000 price point, irrespective of platform. Windows Phone at this stage (in Q2 2013) still had a very small market share (around 3.4 per cent) but it was growing and with the announcements of affordable Windows Phone coming from Indian brands like Micromax and Lava, was being seen as a challenger to Android’s mantle in the years to come.

And then came the Chinese.

Or to be more accurate, first came the Moto G, which was one of the first devices to really deliver a decent Android experience at a relatively low price, but even its price was significantly higher than that of the Lumia 520 (and its successor, the Lumia 525) at Rs 12,499. As per most sources, the real hammer blow to Windows Phone was delivered by the likes of the Xiaomi Redmi 3 and the Redmi 1S, and also by the first Asus Zenfone, all of which comfortably out-specced and outperformed the Lumia 520/525. This was followed by the likes of the Redmi Note 3G/4G. To its credit, Microsoft (which had now taken over Nokia’s mobile phone business) did react, trying to match the large screen and selfie cameras of the newcomers with the Lumia 535. The task facing it, however, was a massive one, as the one huge edge Windows Phone had enjoyed over Android – good performance even at a relatively low price had been eroded. And when the likes of YU, Huawei, Coolpad, InFocus and an improved Micromax joined the good-performance-at-an-affordable-price party, Microsoft did not seem to be able to move fast enough – devices like the colorful Lumia 735 did do well but by and large, the company was being seen as playing catch-up in a zone which it had once owned.

Perhaps nothing symbolised the changing fortunes of Windows Phone as much as the launch of the Lumia 540 in mid-2015 in India. For Rs 10,199, which was just a little lower than the price of the Lumia 520 two years ago, the device came with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 processor, a 5.0-inch HD display, 1 GB RAM and 8 GB storage (expandable), an 8.0-megapixel rear camera and a 5.0-megapixel front facing camera. Those specs would have been amazing a couple of years but in mid 2015, they seemed off the pace when compared with the likes of the Honor 4x, the Redmi Note 4G, the YU Yureka Plus and the rejigged second edition of the Moto G. There was also an undercurrent of feeling that Microsoft was reneging on its initial promise of never to compromise on performance with devices like the Lumia 430, which was priced aggressively at Rs 5299, but came with features (a 2.0-megapixel fixed focus camera) that seemed from another age, and was not a match for the much better specced and performing Moto E and Asus ZenFone 4.

And the shadow of the Chinese could be seen at the launch of the Microsoft 950 and 950 XL too towards the end of 2015. Yes, both devices were good ones and our experience of the 950 XL in particular was very good (a review is coming up, be patient), but the price tags they came at were almost twice of what Chinese and Indian manufacturers were offering for comparatively specced and performing phones (just check out the value for money trio – the OnePlus 2, YU Yutopia and the Qiku Q Terra – which we compared recently). Even when Microsoft released a more affordable Windows 10 phone, the Lumia 550 (the Windows 10 laden successor of the iconic 520), comparisons were inevitably made with similarly priced devices like the Lenovo K3 Note and the Moto G(3rd edition), and they were not flattering. Two years ago, Microsoft could have pointed to a significant performance gap between its affordable devices and those of Android. Now, it seems to have lost that edge.

No, we are not writing off Microsoft in the mobile phone OS battle yet. But the Redmond giant does need an ace from somewhere to surmount the increasingly Chinese Wall that is surrounding it.

It needs a spiritual rather than a spec successor to the Lumia 520.


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Editorial Mentor

Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.