Microsoft unveils Lumia 950 and 950 XL phones, but puts focus on larger Windows 10 ecosystem

As expected, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) unveiled new Lumia-branded smartphones at an event in New York City today, though it did not announce any carrier partnerships for the new phones. Microsoft executives used the event less as a platform to unveil new phones and other Microsoft-made hardware (like a new fitness Band and Surface Pro tablet) and more as a way to explain their vision for the company's Windows 10 platform, which is already powering 110 million devices.

Lumia 950

The new Lumia phones, the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, will be available in November for $549 and $649 unlocked. No U.S. carrier partners were announced at the evet, although AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) later said it will launch the Lumia 950, but declined to provide pricing or exact availability. Microsoft also unveiled the entry-level, LTE-capable Lumia 550, which will go on sale in December for $139, and it seems to be aimed at emerging markets.

All three phones run Windows 10, with access to the Windows Store with Universal applications that can run on phones and PCs, OneDrive cloud storage, Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant, and Microsoft Office Mobile and Outlook. The Lumia 950 sports a Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) Snapdragon 808 processor and a 5.2-inch display, while the 950 XL has a Snapdragon 810 processor and 5.7-inch display. Both phones have 20-megapixel PureView rear cameras with Zeiss optics, optical image stabilization, triple LED natural flash and 4K video recording. Both gadgets also sport  5-megapixel wide-angle 1080p front-facing cameras.

The event served as a coming out for Panos Panay, a Microsoft's corporate vice president who in July was put in charge of engineering for all Microsoft premium devices, including Surface, Windows phones, the Xbox gaming console, the Surface Hub conferencing system, Microsoft fitness Band and the HoloLens virtual reality headset.

Panay said the focus of Microsoft's efforts in phones is to make users more productive, and that line of reasoning is in synch with the company's redefined approach to phones, with a focus especially on business users. "This is supposed to be the most productive phone you've ever picked up," he said, according to a The Verge live blog.

"We want to put Windows in your pocket," he added.

Microsoft has seen its star in smartphones wane as Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iOS and Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android have dominated the market. Panay almost seemed to be saying that all users -- consumers and business customers -- should take a second to appreciate what Microsoft is doing, as it tries to regain relevance by focusing on cloud tools and productivity. "If you haven't thought about these phones, wake up and spend a minute," he added.

Panay and other Microsoft executives spent a great deal of time talking about the seamless experience and transition users can make from one device to another with Windows 10. They also talked up Windows 10's "Continuum" capability for phones, which they said is enhanced by the new Microsoft Display Dock accessory. Users can connect new Windows 10 phones like the Lumia 950 and 9550 XL to a monitor and then connect for larger-screen entertainment, or add a keyboard and mouse to work like a PC with Windows 10 apps like Microsoft Office, while simultaneously taking calls or performing other tasks on the phone.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted that the ramp up to 100 million active Windows 10 users since July is the fastest adoption Microsoft has seen for a new operating system. "No single device will be a hub of activity forever. The hub is you," he said. "This means your content, your data, your settings, your apps need to be mobile with you."

While those capabilities are at the heart of Windows 10, it's unclear how that will translate into smartphone sales or greater adoption of the platform. That experience is what Microsoft is selling now, not just phones.

"Microsoft has a mountain to climb to make itself relevant in the smartphone market again," CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber said. "These new Lumia devices tick all the boxes in terms of specifications and features but they are unlikely to be enough to lure customers away from the iPhone or Android-powered rivals."

Blaber added a note of optimism, though, and said that "with the future of Microsoft and its new subscription-based business model depending heavily on Windows 10, Microsoft must be encouraged by how many devices have been updated so far. Windows 10 also seems to be getting a far more positive reception from consumers that the ill-fated Windows 8. The challenge now is to build on this positive momentum."

For more:
- see this Microsoft release
- see this The Verge live blog 
- see this The Verge article 
- see this CNET article 

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Article updated Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. ET to note that AT&T said it will launch the Lumia 950.