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Third-Platform Drama: BlackBerry Surprises, Nokia Disappoints

Over the last few quarters, Microsoft seemed to be solidifying its position as the third platform in the smartphone world.

All the action is at the top -- between Google's Android platform, with Samsung as the major handset maker, and Apple with its integrated iOS/iPhone combination. But Microsoft had slowly climbed its way past a badly stumbling BlackBerry to grasp the No. 3 platform mantle in terms of new device shipments per quarter -- although it was a distant third.

Now BlackBerry, largely given up for dead, is showing surprising signs of life, and Windows Phone sales mysteriously stalled in the fourth quarter.

BlackBerry enjoyed a stock surge this week after the U.S. Department of Defense said that its new secure network would primarily support BlackBerry devices, with about 80,000 of the Ontario, Canada-based firm's devices eventually expected to be hooked up to that network. New BlackBerry CEO John Chen is recommitting to the original physical keyboards and historical markets like business and government.

As big as an 80,000-seat contract is, that's 1 percent of the number of Windows Phones Nokia sold in the fourth quarter, the Finnish company revealed today in its earnings release (.PDF).

Unfortunately, the 8.2 million new Lumia phones Nokia sold in the fourth quarter of 2013 is a sequential drop from the 8.8 million Lumias sold in the third quarter. That's a big fumble coming in the critical, and usually bountiful, holiday season by the partner whose phone business Microsoft is acquiring.

For four consecutive quarters, Microsoft made big sequential gains, and staying on that trajectory would have put the Microsoft/Nokia combo well over 10 million devices for the fourth quarter of 2013. Microsoft and Nokia, which accounts for around 90 percent of the Windows Phone market worldwide, need to continue at that growth rate to become contenders in the global smartphone market.

One BlackBerry deal doesn't make a turnaround, and one bad quarter for Microsoft/Nokia isn't a disaster. Looked at another way, Nokia sold more than twice as many Lumias in Q4 2013 as it sold in Q4 2012. But suddenly the narrative shifts to whether Microsoft can hang onto the No. 3 spot rather than whether it can consolidate its position and start moving toward No. 2.

Posted by Scott Bekker on January 23, 2014 at 3:59 PM