Microsoft Chases Undecided Vote

In a few weeks you’ll have a choice to make – and I don’t necessarily mean the presidential election. Just as the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney, most have made up their minds between the two major smartphone contenders, Apple iOS and Google Android.

But just as in politics, there is a wide swath of undecided, or non-smartphone owners – around 45 percent of U.S. mobile users are still using feature phones as of Nielsen’s last market sounding in July.

This undecided group, just as in the presidential race, is shrinking rapidly. A year ago the non-smartphone owning U.S. population was 59 percent, and the current Nielsen figure is likely to shrink further given the 45 million-plus iPhone 5s expected to be sold between now and the end of the year.

Ten days before we vote for president, on October 26, the choices for the smartphone undecided will expand with the official availability of Microsoft’s Windows 8 platform. Several Windows Phone 8 (WP8) handsets such as the brightly-colored Nokia Lumia 920 and 820 and HTC 8X and 8S will follow.

Judging by the specifications of these WP8 handsets, Microsoft and its partners recognize the nature of this undecided vote. They are modern, but not close to bleeding edge, and with their fashion-forward accessories, seem to place a greater emphasis on color and style then any Android or even Apple phone.

Microsoft and WP8 handset makers realize the vast chunk of current smartphone owners lean toward the geek who cares about such things as processor speed, display technology, relative screen size and other digital decorations.

The undecided – the constituency Microsoft is aiming at – is less tech savvy. Microsoft, perhaps cynically, believes current feature phone owners can be distracted by pretty pastel baubles and just enough technology to keep costs – and pricing down.

And they may be right. Except…

How big is 45 percent of the market?

If this is Microsoft’s strategy, I detect a flaw: the undecided market may not be as large as Microsoft and the WP8 crowd believes.

With the coming of iPhone 5, you can now buy an iPhone 4S for $100 and get an iPhone 4 for free on contract. There are dozens of similarly inexpensive or free Android phones available, including the brand new Motorola Droid RAZR M with its 4.3-inch screen and 16-hour battery at $100.

It seems Microsoft assumes its high handset prices and lack of a less sophisticated third-party candidate that keeps the undecided from switching to a smartphone.

It isn’t.

I asked a friend, a professional in the advertising field, why he had not switched from his feature phone. His reason – the monthly data plan cost. The new shared data plans being offered by the major carriers may lessen this monthly burden but won’t eliminate it.

So, following the 80/20 rule, convincing feature phone users to switch to smartphones will be increasingly difficult. My guess, just as there are still stubborn folks with analog TVs, VCRs and wired landline phones, around 20 percent of feature phone users are likely to remain unreachable feature phone users.

Which means Microsoft is chasing just 25 percent of the undecided vote, which Apple and Android also are pursuing with equal ardor – and with more advanced (if aesthetically less flowery) devices.

Considering the market and familiarity advantages enjoyed by Apple and Android, Microsoft can’t optimistically hope to grab any more than a single digit share of the entire mobile phone market.

I do like the WP8 operating system and I wish Microsoft luck. But its chance of affecting (much less winning) the smartphone election are less than any other third-party candidate.