Microsoft's mobile ambitions ride on new Windows Phone 7 handsets

As Microsoft preps for Monday's public unveiling of the first devices featuring Windows Phone 7 -- its latest effort to assert mobile-industry leadership -- CEO Steve Ballmer has made clear what will define success for this radically redesigned operating system.

"Job one here will be selling a lot of phones, and if we sell a lot of phones, good things are going to happen," he told the Wall Street Journal.

In the U.S., you can expect at least a handful of phone models, with different prices and form factors, on the two main GSM cellular networks: AT&T and T-Mobile (it's not clear when T-Mobile will start selling the phones). The publicly announced Windows Phone handset makers include Dell, HTC, LG and Samsung, the latter three with strong commitments to Google Android handsets. All handsets will comply with a foundation hardware specification -- CPU, memory and so on -- designed to ensure that every Windows Phone device will perform consistently and well.

Photos and documents purporting to be of the new phones have been surfacing, all showing roughly similar devices: big-screen touch phones, with the trademark trio of Windows Phone 7 buttons at the bottom. But expect a much more diverse group of devices, in terms of size, weight, and design, targeted at different groups of users.

Given Windows Phone 7's built-in cluster (or "hub" in Microsoft parlance) of Microsoft Office applications, a native Microsoft SharePoint client and nearly complete implementation of Exchange ActiveSync for linking the phone to corporate Exchange Servers, the new handsets are likely to find ready acceptance in the enterprise market. (See: "The top 6 enterprise issues for Windows Phone 7")

'Disaster,' 'doomed,' 'a step back'

Plenty of people fervently believe that by Ballmer's yardstick, Windows phones will fall well short of success, ending up like Microsoft's ill-fated Kin phones, which were based on different software and lasted just two months on the market earlier this year, or Palm's webOS phones, which despite good reviews failed to spark consumer interest.

Windows Phone 7 already has been declared a "disaster," and a "doomed" enterprise with a failed business model. It's a "step back" according to some number of developers and users of the older, and now incompatible, Windows Mobile OS.

Analyst firm Gartner forecasts about 12.6 million Windows Phone handsets sold in 2010, jumping to 21.3 million next year, but market share climbing from just 4.7% to 5.2%, and dropping back to 3.9% in 2014. IDC is more optimistic, forecasting a 9.8% share in 2014.

But Microsoft has so far fulfilled its two top priorities, which Ballmer repeated in the same Journal interview, and it's worth quoting at length: "In the time frame since the last significant release [of the older Windows Mobile OS] certainly the industry has moved, the technology has moved, the hardware has moved. We said 'we've got to move forward, not shoot for yesterday. We've got to shoot ahead in a way that's delightful to users, accessible to developers, and prioritize everything else we do around those [two] elements.' "

The 'delightful' mobile OS

"Delightful" isn't usually a design goal for software engineers. But since the early 2009 unveiling of the redesigned OS, Microsoft has been evangelizing its benefits to the legions of Windows developers. Starting Monday, its marketing program will do the same for consumers.

The Windows Phone 7 user interface represents a fundamental innovation in how the user interacts with a smartphone and how the phone interacts with network-based services. The distinctive UI is dramatically different not just from Windows Mobile but from its rivals, Apple iOS, Google Android and BlackBerry OS.

Microsoft brought in a flock of young, talented outsiders to redesign the look and feel of mobile computing, and gave them free rein to do so. (See "From sneakers to smartphones: The man behind Microsoft's Windows Phone design") The UI discards the now-familiar grid display of application icons on the smartphone screen. Instead, the user interface is a flexible, customizable display that combines clean, crisp text with intelligent, resizable "tiles."

The tiles are "live" because they're linked with, and display, constantly updating online data sources such as Facebook, Flickr and e-mail. They're grouped in "hubs," which bring together related applications, services and data (from corporate servers like Micorosoft Exchange and SharePoint, and from the Web), with common actions and tasks associated with them.

As one developer, Kevin Hoffman put it, "In a traditional, app-centric system, the application has complete control and the user must go through it in order to get at any piece of information. In hub-centric system, the information is in control and apps [or even small pieces of apps] are summoned at will to do things with, for, or related to, that information." (See "Info integration with Windows Phone 7 'Hubs'.)

Developers come on board

Since the February unveiling of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's most visible priority has been enlisting developer support for it. Within a month, it had an early release of Windows Phone 7 add-ons for the company's suite of widely used development tools, and a PC-based program that emulated the look and behavior of a WP7 smartphone.

All applications for Windows Phone are managed code -- they run with either the Microsoft XNA Studio runtime for games or the Microsoft Silverlight runtime, for rich applications. This is a break from Windows Mobile which can load and run C++ applications natively. Those applications face a big rewrite for the new OS, and these developers are deeply unhappy about it.

But Microsoft's insistence on managed code means that about 500,000 Silverlight developers, and another army of game developers, already have the skills and tools to start creating rich, interactive applications for Windows Phone 7. And lots of them have doing just that: the WP7 development tools have been downloaded well over 300,000 times since their March release. Overall, most developers seem to approve of the quality and stability of the tools and the operating system code with which they've been working.

The applications strategy

Microsoft has consistently refused to predict how many applications will be available on Monday, or by the time the phones actually become available, probably in early November. Instead, it's been focused on recruiting and supporting a showcase of applications, from developers and independent software vendors of all sizes and shapes, which will show off the fluidity and power of its "delightful" OS. (See: "Microsoft making 'first mover' Windows Phone 7 apps developers a priority".) A recent video, for example, showed five newly minted mass-appeal apps on Windows Phone: Netflix, Twitter, flixster, OpenTable and Travelocity.

The applications will be available via the redesigned online catalog, now called Windows Phone Marketplace. Marketplace has its own hub on the Windows Phone 7 handset: at a glance, users can see and select from broad categories such as applications and games, see featured apps and the number of pending updates to already download apps.

Overall, the early Windows Phone software builds and the tools have gotten generally good reviews from developers for their stability and quality. Developers generally also seem to think that Microsoft's changes to the new online application store, now called Windows Phone Marketplace, and to the newly automated application submission and certification process have been well done.

On Monday, the handset makers and carriers will join Microsoft in taking Windows Phone 7 into the next phase. In the weeks following, consumers will vote for or against it with their dollars, and Steve Ballmer will know whether his big bet, and big ambition, has paid off.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.



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This story, "Microsoft's mobile ambitions ride on new Windows Phone 7 handsets" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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