Windows Phone's lack of a "gateway drug" puts it at a disadvantage

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THE COMPETITION

Imagine I'm an iPhone user. I'm impressed by the features and customizability of my friend's Android phone, but I'm not ready to commit to the platform completely. As I scour the Web for a solution, I happen across a Google ad for the Nexus 7. Only $199? I think. No extra bill or wrangling with carriers? Not bad. My cursor hovers momentarily over the "buy" button before I commit to the purchase.

Now imagine I'm an Android user. The newest iPhone looks appealing, but will it be difficult to transition to iOS? I browse Apple's web site, grimacing at the unsubsidized price tag, before noticing the new 16GB iPod touch. I won't have to use my upgrade, I think. And I can spare $199. In ten minutes, Apple has made a new customer.

Both the Nexus 7 and the iPod touch are "gateway drugs"--cheap, commitment-free ways to enter Google's or Apple's ecosystem and, if the company has its way, never leave. It's no secret that the Nexus 7 was designed to boost the Play Store, and Apple's best-selling iPod has long pointed children and teens to the iPhone. It's a strategy that seems to work, especially in the carrier-controlled US smartphone market, where using your subsidized upgrade is a Big Deal. These devices offer the chance to try out a new platform before plunging headfirst into an uncertain two years.

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THE PROBLEM

Neither Microsoft nor its manufacturing partners offer such a device. If I'm considering a Windows Phone, the only way to find out if I like it is to buy one and use it. To those of you outside the US, this may not sound like a problem; couldn't I buy an inexpensive Lumia, pop in my SIM, and dive into some Metro Modern goodness? The answer, for most consumers, is no (or, more likely, "huh?").

Firstly, I'd need to be a subscriber to a GSM carrier, which rules out a huge percentage of the population. But let's assume I'm on AT&T or T-Mobile. Even then, I, Joe Consumer, have been brainwashed for years into believing the only way to get a new phone is to wait two years for upgrade pricing or pay over $600 for that new iPhone or Galaxy. And who would risk two years of misery or 600 bucks on an untested platform?

The SOLUTION (MAYBE)

At this point, Microsoft needs a device that doesn't require a mobile subscription but convinces people that Windows Phone is worth one. A Windows Phone-based PMP seems unlikely given the fate of the Zune brand, and the company has made its stance on Windows Phone-powered tablets very clear ("No compromises!"). Consumers, however, appear unwilling to purchase mobile devices running the full version of Windows, even relatively cheap, 7- and 8-inch tablets. And with Intel's processors growing more efficient every year, OEMs are forgetting Windows RT and packing intimidatingly full-featured Windows 8 installations onto their devices.

This is why I think Microsoft should completely merge Windows Phone and Windows RT. Get rid of the desktop, combine the app stores, and--boom!--you have one mobile OS with a phone interface and a small tablet interface. This OS would only run on ARM processors, making for cheaper tablets that don't scare away consumers with the full edition of Windows. When I, the curious iOS or Android user, decide to pick up one of these tablets (may I suggest a price point of $199?), I might just get hooked. And when my upgrade rolls around, I might just pick a Windows Phone.

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