Why Only One Carrier Will Sell Microsoft’s Lumia 950

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Microsoft’s announcement of its new flagship smartphones, the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, was met with interest. But the positive feedback stopped when Windows Phone fans learned that the new Lumias continue the frustrating tradition of limited availability.

While there are four major carriers in the United States, and countless smaller players with their own user base, getting the new flagship phones — if you’re on most of those carriers’ networks — won’t be easy. Peter Bright reports for Ars Technica that it was initially reported that both the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL would be exclusive to AT&T. AT&T then announced that it would support the Lumia 950, but didn’t mention the Lumia 950 XL. The Microsoft Store, on the other hand, posted a listing for the unlocked Lumia 950 XL, but didn’t have any information on the Lumia 950.

Subsequently, it’s come to light that while AT&T will be the only U.S. carrier to sell the phones, it doesn’t have exclusivity. The Lumia 950 will, eventually, arrive at the Microsoft Store, and both the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL should work on AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks. Outside of the U.S., it’s not yet known who will distribute the phones (except for Germany, where it’s been announced that Deutsche Telekom will carry both).

Bright notes that Windows Phone has not been as successful in the U.S. as it has in other locations, such as parts of Europe. But the U.S. fan base that has assembled around Microsoft’s smartphones has continually complained about how Microsoft, and Nokia before it, have made the phones available to consumers.

Microsoft has traditionally negotiated exclusive agreements to give one carrier a desirable phone, and the chosen carriers have responded by promoting those phones for a period of time, and then dropping them entirely. Bright points out that the last flagship Windows Phone available in the U.S. — called the Lumia Icon in the United States and known as the Lumia 930 in the rest of the world — was exclusive to Verizon. When Verizon dropped it, “there was no replacement high-end Windows Phone for Verizon customers, nor any widely available high-end Windows Phone in the US regardless of carrier.”

The previous flagship phone, the Lumia 1520, was exclusive to AT&T, and the situation played out the same way. When AT&T dropped it, there was no replacement high-end Windows Phone for AT&T customers, nor for the customers of any other carrier in the United States. Before that, the flagship Windows Phone was the Lumia 920, which was exclusive to AT&T and followed the same chain of events.

While the current situation with the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL is better than expected, with both T-Mobile and AT&T supporting the new phones, it’s still far from ideal. The lack of in-store inventory, and the accompanying availability of carrier financing, will limit the number of users who are able to purchase one of the new flagships. Carrier financing is desirable for many would-be buyers, though Bright notes that Microsoft could easily fix the issue by offering its own financing for unlocked smartphones, like Apple introduced with the iPhone 6s.

As Emil Protalinski reports for Venture Beat, Microsoft has confirmed that it’s to blame for the limited availability of its new phones. T-Mobile CEO, John Legere, says that Microsoft made the “exclusive decision” without offering the phones to carriers other than AT&T. Protalinski reports that “it appears that Microsoft is choosing to shoot itself in the foot,” since phones that sell well in the U.S. generally launch not only with the four major carriers, but often with smaller ones, too. He adds, “It looks like Microsoft simply doesn’t have the high hopes for these devices that Windows Phone fans would have liked.”

The new Lumia phones don’t fix Microsoft’s struggles with poor carrier availability, or the lack of continuity for users who buy a Windows Phone and are interested in sticking with the platform. As Microsoft confers exclusivity on a different carrier for each flagship release, users are left stranded, with nowhere to go except Android or iOS if they want to stick with their current carriers. These problems reduce the relevance of Microsoft’s platform, and ensure that even Microsoft’s exciting new features will have limited reach.

More from Gear & Style Cheat Sheet:

Want more great content like this? Sign up here to receive the best of Cheat Sheet delivered daily. No spam; just tailored content straight to your inbox.