Windows Phone 7 could rival Apple's iOS 4

Microsoft's new mobile OS could become the iPhone's most serious challenger yet

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Software updates

This is pretty much a wash between Apple and Microsoft. Microsoft is taking Apple's approach of delivering updates directly to customers using its desktop sync solution -- the Zune software, in this case. That matches iOS, which uses iTunes for updates. Both differ from the approach used for Android, which relies on over-the air-updates vetted by manufacturers and carriers.

One manufacturer vs. many

Apple's one model/one manufacturer approach ensures that all iPhones look, feel and work the same. This offers simplicity and consistency, but it limits choice.

Microsoft seems to be taking a middle road between Apple's go-it-alone approach and the general free-for-all of Android. It's offering different handset designs from different manufacturers -- some with physical keyboards, some optimized for entertainment, etc. -- but keeping a tight leash on them when it comes to ensuring consistent performance and general design. It's hard to say yet which approach is better; we'll know better after several WP7 devices have been out for awhile.

Cool factor and business interest

One thing that the iPhone has is the cool factor. Owning an iPhone or iPod can be something of a hipster badge of honor. Granted, that's due to Apple's marketing as much as to product design, but it does influence sales for consumers. It also has a tendency to make the iPhone seem more like a toy than a serious business device (though Apple's phone is very capable in many business environments).

Despite a splashy introduction, it remains to be seen whether WP7 will garner points for coolness. (Certainly, the Zune never did.) Even if it doesn't, it may still be able to gain traction as a more serious business device because it's from Microsoft, integrates well with Exchange and SharePoint, can presumably be managed natively from Exchange, and includes Office out of the box.

Again, it's a bit too early to judge. Suffice it to say that Microsoft certainly has an opening here to succeed, even if Apple retains the cool crown.

Carrier choice

No article comparing anything to the iPhone here in the U.S. would be complete without a look at the iPhone's exclusivity to AT&T, which seems likely to end in the next year or so. Being able to choose carriers is an advantage to WP7 for both consumers, who can pick the best network for their needs, and businesses, which may already have a relationship with a particular carrier.

Initially, however, WP7 devices are limited to AT&T and T-Mobile service. AT&T has had its growing pains with the iPhone, and if WP7 phones do sell well, the carrier may face the same network issues it faced with the iPhone. T-Mobile hasn't had that problem, but it is the smallest national carrier, which could limit how quickly WP7 devices gain ground on that network. Since there are no WP7 phones that work on CDMA networks (the kind of network used by Verizon and Sprint), WP7's ability to gain market share quickly could be hindered. And if Apple does produce a CDMA iPhone for Verizon or some other carrier, all bets are off.

Final thoughts

Overall, I have to say that I'm pretty impressed by WP7 -- more than I expected to be. It has a lot of potential, and adding up the various features listed above shows the two mobile operating systems to be well matched. It's impossible to say definitely that one is better than the other or has more potential than the other; many of the differences between WP7 and iOS make a direct comparison difficult.

Having said that, I do think that WP7 could become the iPhone's most serious challenger yet -- if it manages to get enough market traction and can evolve as quickly as iOS and the iTunes ecosystem have. At the very least, Microsoft is off to a credible start.

Microsoft on Monday showed off the first handsets to run Windows Phone 7, its new operating system for cell phones.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress 2009). You can find out more about him at www.ryanfaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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