Will Microsoft sustain Windows Phone momentum?

At its annual TechEd conference in New Orleans next week, will Microsoft keep building momentum for its re-launched mobile operating system, or fumble it with too little information and action?

Microsoft's Windows Phone news, if there is any, won't be able to escape comparison to Apple's expected news around the iPhone OS 4.0 release and possibly a fourth-generation iPhone handset. Apple's iPhone and now the iPad are huge successes, though they face growing competition from mobile devices running Google's Android OS. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is making a risky, high-stakes bid to win a big piece of the mobile market.

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Experienced Windows application developers have high praise for the radically redesigned user interface in Windows Phone 7, which was unveiled in February. But so far, they've been working with early versions of both the operating system and development tools. And without actual handsets, they have had to rely on the PC-based Windows Phone emulator to experiment with the look and feel of their mobile applications.

On their wish list for TechEd news are the following:

  • Real handsets that meet the Windows Phone 7 hardware specification, on which to test their applications.
  • Beta releases or "release candidate" versions of the operating system itself.
  • Beta releases of the various development tools.
  • Details about the online Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, and the process of submitting and approving applications.
  • More specific target dates for when companies such as HTC, LG and others will release handsets running Windows Phone 7.
  • Enterprise-specific features, functions and APIs.
  • Some sense of Microsoft's game plan, or at least an idea of future priorities for Windows Phone, such as enabling controlled multi-tasking and enhancing local data storage capabilities.

The more of these expectations that Microsoft can meet, the more it can prove that it has a mobile strategy that's being executed effectively.

A growing number of experienced Windows developers are committing to the Windows Phone platform, provided Microsoft delivers on its initial promises.

"The Apple iPhone completely changed what you expect a UI to look like and work like," says Andy Wigley, co-founder of APPA Mundi Ltd., a Windows development shop in Birmingham, U.K., that specializes in mobile applications.

The then-existing Windows Mobile OS and its development tools suddenly looked "antiquated," he says. "We've been walking into sales opportunities [with corporate customers] and they want an iPhone-style mobile application, and we couldn't do that in Windows Mobile."

Wigley and two other developers who have been working with the initial versions of the OS and development tools shared with us what they like and dislike so far.

1. The ease of developing sophisticated mobile apps.

Unlike Windows Mobile, Windows Phone apps will be "managed code," applications that execute inside a runtime environment, either Microsoft Silverlight for most applications, and XNA Studio for advanced games. Both, along with the Visual Studio toolkit and Expression Blend, an application design tool, make for a powerful development environment.

"As I've been spending more time writing iPhone apps for clients and Windows Phone apps for my own education, the gap between how much easier it is to get something done on Windows Phone vs iPhone is widening," says Kevin Hoffman, chief systems architect with Oak Leaf Waste Management, East Hartford, Conn., and a Windows and iPhone development blogger and author.

Building a stock iPhone app is very easy, Hoffman says. But to customize it is a laborious process. Silverlight makes complex customization in Windows Phone 7 a snap.

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