Microsoft Introduces Windows Phone 7 Series
Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 7 Series, the company's latest hope for
reversing its declining share of the smartphone OS market, during a Feb. 15
press conference at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona,
Spain. By branding the
new operating system "Windows Phone 7 Series" in place of the
traditional "Windows Mobile," Microsoft seems to be emphasizing that
this offering is a clean break from previous versions.
"We needed and wanted to do some things that were out of the box," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the audience after a demonstration of the device. "You'll see us continue to invest in our Windows Mobile 6.5 offering, but we started a whole new generation here with Windows Phone 7 Series."
Ballmer also indicated that the devices will make their debut in time for the holiday season at the end of the year.
Microsoft's attempt to differentiate itself in the crowded and competitive smartphone arena is an operating system that groups a wide number of services into what the company calls "hubs." Both Xbox Live and Zune software will be integrated into the devices.
Those hubs include "People," "Pictures," "Office," "Music & Video" and "Games." As an example, the "People" hub merges together data from Outlook, Windows Live and other social networking services to provide real-time data about the phone user's friends and colleagues; the "Office" hub syncs applications such as OneNote with the user's PC and allows access to a SharePoint server for collaboration with colleagues.
During the press conference, Microsoft officials seemed to de-emphasize the role of mobile applications created by third-party developers, which are front and center for smartphone competitors such as Apple's iPhone and Google Android devices, in favor of focusing on the overall operating system and its syncing with both the Web and the user's PC. However, Microsoft executives indicated to eWEEK in a separate conversation Feb. 15 that there would be a mobile applications marketplace for Windows Phone 7 Series devices, reminiscent of the Mobile Marketplace that already exists for Windows Mobile 6.5.
Hardware partners on the initiative include Qualcomm for the optimization of hardware and software, as well as a variety of OEMs-including Hewlett-Packard, HTC, Sony Ericsson and Samsung-for crafting a core hardware specification across all new Windows phones. A screen that flashed during the presentation indicated that T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon will also be partners at launch.
AT&T and Orange will be key collaborators, apparently, in the rollout, with AT&T defining itself at the press conference as a "premier partner" for Windows Phone 7 Series in the United States. In a separate conversation with eWEEK, Microsoft executives suggested there would be a minimum of physical variation between the Windows Phone 7 Series smartphones produced by various manufacturers.
All Windows Phone 7 Series devices will include three hardware buttons: Start, Back and Search, the last of which will route users to a dedicated Bing search screen. As rumors suggested before the announcement, the new interface is heavily reminiscent of the Zune HD, down to the fonts and menu navigation.
The devices will lack Flash support at the outset, something that Adobe took pains in the hours leading to the press conference to emphasize was temporary.
"Microsoft and Adobe are working closely together," a spokesperson from Adobe wrote in a Feb. 15 e-mail to eWEEK. "While the newest version of Windows Phone won't support Flash at initial availability, both companies are working to include a browser plug-in for the full Flash player in future versions of Windows Phone. More details will be shared at Microsoft MIX next month."
However, "we have no objection to Adobe Flash support," Ballmer said during the conference, perhaps a dig at Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his reported refusal to allow Flash onto the iPad tablet PC.
Microsoft's rollout of Windows Phone 7 comes days after research firm comScore released a report showing that the company's share of the U.S. mobile operating system market declined from 19 percent to 18 percent in the three-month period between September and December 2009. While that percentage decrease is not extraordinarily steep by itself, it indicates that the steady decline in Microsoft's share of the smartphone OS market is continuing despite October's release of Windows Mobile 6.5, which was meant to halt that decline.
Early analyst views on Windows Phone 7 seem to be mixed. According to a Feb. 15 blog posting by Forrester analyst Charles Golvin, elements such as Xbox Live and Zune integration are positive steps, but "these features won't matter if Microsoft doesn't get its branding in line. Our data shows that consumers today haven't a clue about their phone's operating system."
Whether Microsoft can change such perceptions will determine whether the company can endure in the mobile space. Ballmer emphasized during the press conference that smartphones remain a "critical" part of the company's "three screens and a cloud" strategy, and joked about how "seven is our lucky number," an allusion to the bestselling Windows 7 operating system.