HTC’s Windows Phones Knock the Wind Out of Nokia

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Nokia is in trouble. That was my first thought when HTC announced the Windows Phone 8X and Windows Phone 8S on Wednesday.

The phones, which launch in November, look good, particularly the flagship 8X. It has an outer casing made from a single slab of polycarbonite, offered in four colors to match the hue of the Live Tiles in Windows Phone 8. It’s light–about 30 percent lighter than Nokia’s upcoming Lumia 920–and has a tapered rear side that should fit nicely in cupped palms.

(MORE: 6 Things Windows Phone 8 Still Needs to Succeed)

The Windows Phone 8X also has all the specs that a high-end Windows Phone should, including a 4.3-inch 720p display, a dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage. It has an 8-megapixel camera with an ImageSense chip, so you can expect the same snappy image capture as HTC’s high-end Android phones. The 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera supports 1080p video, and has a wide angle lens so it can see up to four faces during video chat.

But HTC’s specs and design alone don’t imperil Nokia. Just as dangerous is how HTC has swooped in to curry favor from Microsoft, and how the phone maker has already lined up agreements with more than 150 carriers in 50 countries, including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and U.S. Cellular in the United States. I’m wondering if the latter has something to do with the former.

Before this week, Nokia and Microsoft had a special relationship. Nokia essentially bet its future on Windows Phone, and Microsoft in turn treated Nokia like it was the only Windows Phone maker that mattered. Suddenly, in comes HTC, and everything’s changed.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the 8X is “truly a Windows Phone hero product.” HTC and Microsoft spent months collaborating on the devices, and HTC’s Graham Wheeler told The Verge that its phones will be “the signature devices, almost the face of Windows Phone 8 in the marketing collateral with Microsoft.”

For Nokia, that’s got to sting, but it’s not a huge surprise that Microsoft is putting some weight behind another phone maker. Microsoft already helped set up one major marketing campaign for Nokia’s Lumia phones, which only translated into so-so sales. Another company deserves a shot, and it might as well be the one that’s putting “Windows Phone” in its product names.

Despite my gut reaction, I’m not counting Nokia out. The company’s next flagship, the Lumia 920, has some interesting features that’ll help it stand out, such as built-in wireless charging, a touch screen that works with gloved fingers and a camera that touts image stabilization and low-light performance. Nokia will need to convince shoppers that its hardware is better, despite any design similarities.

But that’ll be tricky to pull off while HTC is selling a lighter, thinner phone, with broad carrier availability, backed by Microsoft’s marketing muscle. HTC could be the ally that Windows Phone has needed all along.

MORE: Lumia 920: Nokia Shows Off New Flagship Windows Phone