Microsoft is using its TechEd Conference in New Orleans to push its upcoming smartphone platform, Windows Phone 7, as an evolution in business communications. The company hopes its offering will compete effectively against both Apple and Google, despite CEO Steve Ballmer's recent admission of missteps in the mobile space, and appeal to the same business users who represent a core element of Windows smartphone users.
Windows Phone 7 is intended as a total revamp of Microsoft's mobile franchise. Instead of the "pages of apps" model that defines the user interface for both Apple's iPhone and Google Android devices, Windows Phone 7 devices consolidate mobile applications and Web content into a series of "Hubs" organized by subject, whether "Office" or "Games." If Microsoft's current plans hold, the first devices loaded with the operating system should make their appearance near the end of 2010; at TechEd, the company is hosting a number of deep-dive sessions and product demonstrations for the platform.
"More than 90 [percent] of our target customers for Windows Phone use their Smartphone for business purposes," Paul Bryan, a senior director of Windows Phone at Microsoft, wrote in a June 7 posting on the Windows Phone Blog, timed to the first day of TechEd, "and 61 percent use their phones equally or more for business than personal use. This is why we designed Windows Phone 7 to combine a smart new user interface with familiar tools such as PowerPoint, OneNote, Word, Excel and SharePoint into a single integrated experience via the Office hub."
The key, Bryan added, was Windows Phone 7's integration with existing business IT. "With Windows Phone 7, rather than attempting to replicate the experience of the desktop," he wrote, "we focused on delivering end-user experiences that are uniquely optimized for the phone through tighter integration with Exchange and Office, the addition of SharePoint and our Silverlight development platform for delivering new user experiences."
Bryan also acknowledged the minor controversy over the lack of an upgrade path from previous editions in Microsoft's mobile franchise, such as Windows Mobile 6.5, to Windows Phone 7.
"We needed to restart in order to build the right foundation for the future," Bryan wrote. "We understand that migrating from Windows Mobile 6.1 or 6.5 to Windows Phone 7 will take effort. However, many customers we have spoken with thus far have told us that these are steps they are willing to take in order to achieve a new level of usability and productivity."
Ballmer and other Microsoft executives have taken pains over the past few months to assure business users that Windows Mobile will continue to be supported after Windows Phone 7's release, but a number of analysts see the lack of an upgrade path as a potential stumbling block for many enterprises-something that Bryan seemed to acknowledge.
"We understand that while Windows Phone 7 will bring a new level of business productivity to a broader range of customers than we've ever reached before," Bryan added. However, "for more highly managed corporate scenarios or where customers have made significant investments in applications on Windows Mobile 6.x, Windows Mobile 6.5 may remain the best choice in the near-term."
The opening of TechEd comes a few days after Ballmer's June 3 admission, during a talk at the D8 Conference, that Microsoft had made some substantial missteps in the mobile space.
"We were ahead of this game, and now we find ourselves No. 5 in the market," Ballmer reportedly told The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg during an onstage question-and-answer session, according to a rough blow-by-blow that can be found on this Website. "We missed a whole cycle. I've been quite public about the fact that I've made some changes in leadership around our Windows Phone software. We had to do a little cleanup."
However, Ballmer also struck a note of optimism about Microsoft's prospects, given what he perceived as the smartphone arena's state of flux. "We're driving forward in the phone business," he added, "but this is a very dynamic business, the market leaders here have shifted over twice in the past few years ... so we've got to have real ideas and we've got to execute consistently."
Ballmer acknowledged that Android devices, the iPhone and the BlackBerry franchise all represent strong competitors in the space. "They've done a good job of coming from nowhere a few years ago," Ballmer said about Apple. "They've done their best job on the browser. People focus on the apps, but the browser is really the thing that has distinguished their phone from others."
Apple, of course, announced its upcoming iPhone 4 at its own event on June 7, presenting Microsoft with a further challenge as it tries to capture consumer attention in the consumer space. In addition to Windows Phone 7, Microsoft recently released a pair of phones, the Kin One and Kin Two, which represent another front in its new mobile push: both Kin devices are optimized for social networking, allowing multimedia such as photos to be quickly uploaded to the cloud. Whether the Kin can capture a portion of the consumer market, and whether Windows Phone 7 can seize its own share while appealing to business users, will ultimately speak to Microsoft's longer-term prospects in this ultra-competitive space.