It's very typical for the established software giant to get taken by surprise by some new trend coming out of nowhere, and watch the field for a few seasons until they see where the market is going, then swoop in and use all the engineering and partnership prowess at their disposal to make a nice living for itself in the new market, too.
This seems to be what's happening with Microsoft's newest desktop and mobile operating system editions, and the designs of the new Windows Phone 8 handsets might be the best indicator that Steve Ballmer is leaving nothing to chance this time. After securing a company like Nokia as its de facto manufacturing arm, nudged by its former exec Elop, Microsoft is apparently now working closely with each and every Windows Phone maker to make sure the phones with its mobile OS stand out in the sea of competition, avoiding the fate of the hundreds of faceless black plastic rectangles Android is so demonized for. That's the advantage of coming late to the party, after observing for a long time what works and what doesn't.
We have been wondering how come each new Windows Phone 8 handset this season is so distinct and different from each other, yet Nokia's and HTC's handsets have some overarching similarities that are impossible to go unnoticed. They all come with the same Snapdragon silicon, and HD or WQVGA screens, which is fine, since these are the base requirements of Windows Phone 8, but the tapered chassis and the colorful designs run like a thread throughout the WP8 crop announced this month, hinting of a coordinated design effort on a grander scale, too.
Indeed, while detailing the design process behind the Windows Phone 8X and 8S in an official blog post, HTC says "Over the past year, HTC and Microsoft engineers and designers have worked closely together to deliver a phone that looks and feels like no other – creating a new ‘signature line’ of Windows 8 phones made only by HTC."
Bingo! Apart from the very close relationship with Nokia, where apparently Microsoft is calling the shots for many things, including which designs will make the cut and what will get included with its phones, HTC just divulged that it has been tightly supervised by Microsoft as well, and for a year now. We don't know about Samsung with its metallic ATIV S, but we wouldn't be surprised if its design and top-notch features also had to receive the nod from Redmond.
Moreover, it seems that each company is forced to throw the best it can offer into its Windows Phones now. We are certain that the PureView Phase 2 camera with Optical Image Stabilization was being developed in Nokia's labs for years, and dragged out in the sunlight for WP. We've also heard about Nokia's research on capacitive touchscreens that can be used with gloves and nails in the frosty Finnish winter, as well as its wireless charging effort. These, along with a new ClearBlack screen coating that helps sunlight visibility, were all thrown simultaneously into one flagship handset, the Lumia 920, addressing the weakest hardware points of every smartphone, but also making those features an exclusive Windows Phone endeavor now.
Ditto the "everything plus the kitchen sink" strategy for HTC - besides its signature Android differentiators, like the ImageChip proprietary ISP for some of the fastest cameras around, and the exclusive Beats Audio branding, HTC's 8X flagship added a little something not found anywhere, too. It features a dedicated 2.55v audio amplifier inside the handset, which showed impressive for a handset output strength and clarity through the speaker, and probably will through the audio jack as well. The HTC 8X also offered for the first time a 2MP front-facing camera that has 88-degree lens to fit up to four people in your video chats, and does 1080p video recording - important things, you know, for those Skype video chats, a company that happened to be bought by Microsoft and its service integrated into WP8.
We don't know yet what Samsung's design story is with the ATIV S, which was introduced on the hush-hush recently and has been MIA since. It is the apparent outlier in the theory for colorful designs, as it has a more understated elegance, but the other part of the theory still stands, as Samsung crammed the best it can offer now in it - the Galaxy S III specs with the unique 4.8" HD Super AMOLED display. We wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft was briefed on the plans about the ATIV S, too, and approved a more buttoned down, yet still high-end handset as an alternative to the candy-colored HTC and Lumia WP8 handsets.
And this unorthodox design paradigm trickles down to the new WP8 midrangers too, a significantly different trend than Android's slapping of midrange or low-end components in a black plastic chassis, that has been so prevalent until recently. The Lumia 820 offers wireless charging, too, for example, and other functionality like ruggedness can be added by different back covers. The HTC Windows Phone 8S is with the least impressive specs from those announced, but that didn't preclude HTC (and apparently Microsoft) from giving it a dual-core processor, Beats Audio branding, and wrapping it in a colorful, life-asserting design that seems to be the new WP8 mantra, all in a handset that costs less than $400 SIM-free.
Redmond apparently only rubberstamps flagships now that add a little (or a lot in the Lumia 920 case) extra something exclusive, too, to make people consider switching to its mobile OS, which still has a lot of catching up to do in the apps number category. What do you think, is Microsoft now peeping over the shoulder of Windows Phone 8 handset makers to make sure every product is coherent with an overarching vision to only make phones that stand out? Are you game with this approach considering the results so far?