With Google's Android and Apple's iPhones hogging most of the market share, partners Nokia and Microsoft need a big hit phone to help their Windows Phone 7 gain a foothold in the market.
The well-reviewed Lumia 900 is widely seen as a strong contender, but the current market makes it hard to predict if the Windows Phone 7 device can be hot.
The latest figures from Nielsen Research on the U.S. market placed Windows in the "other" category, not strong enough for its own listing, part of the 8 percent of sales of devices not powered by Android, iOS or Research In Motion's BlackBerry.
comScore's latest report on the U.S. market didn't list Nokia among the top five original equipment manufacturers and estimated Microsoft's share at 3.9 percent, down 1.3 percent from November.
Could This Be the Magic?
The $99, Lumia 900, will launch Friday night for availability Sunday with great fanfare at a Times Square event in New York City. The phone is 4G LTE compatible and comes with an 8-megapixel camera, but a single-core processor (1.4 GHz Scorpion) at a time when some rivals are already packing quad-core CPUs.
Some analysts are raising flags. Deutsche Bank's Kai Korschelt, in a research note cited by Business Week, said success in the U.S. will depend on carrier AT&T's commitment to the device; without its support sales could be as little as 140,000 per quarter, as opposed to a potential of 680,000.
In an interview with C|Net, Jeff Bradley, the vice president of AT&T's wireless department, said the carrier was making the Lumia 900 a centerpiece of its marketing, saying "Before you walk into the store, you know this is our hero phone."
We asked Ramon Llamas, a senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team who has already had a hands-on look at the Lumia 900, for his take.
"The display is gorgeous," he said of the 4.3-inch, 800x480 pixels Super AMOLED Plus capacitive ClearBlack touchscreen. "It really stands out compared to other phones, especially in that I can see how clear the screen is in direct sunlight."
One of Nokia's commercials contrasting the Lumia with a rival presumed to be Apple's iPhone, showing a facetious "Smartphone Beta Test" shows an unnamed company's executives mulling their product's inability to display well in sunlight and concluding that users should just stay inside when using it.
No More Round Pegs
Llamas, who sees the Lumia as a "very compelling handset" said it shows that Finland-based Nokia has learned that handsets made for foreign markets do not sell well in the important U.S. market. "Nokia's previous strategy was to take a phone launched in another part of the world and try to force-fit it here in the U.S., like putting round pegs in a square hole."
The analyst added that the $99 price tag made the Lumia 900 an even more compelling offering.
"If you have a family plan, for the price of one 16-gig iPhone you can get two 16-gig Lumia 900s," Llamas said.
On the down side, though, he noted that the Windows Phone Marketplace still trails in available apps.
While in the past Microsoft may not have invested to the fullest extent possible in promoting Windows phones, there was little choice but to do so now.
"For Nokia this is a critical step toward regaining a position here in the U.S., one of the leading markets worldwide," Llamas said. "For Microsoft, the stakes are perhaps a little bit higher."