Can Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 Take the Smartphone Market by Force in October?

Microsoft will be launching its "Windows phone" Oct. 6, and this week phone makers HTC, Sony Ericsson and LG Electronics announced they will offer phones with Windows Mobile 6.5. While the fanfare is building, will it be enough for Microsoft to create new brand awareness and capture new smartphone market share?

Microsoft is building steam toward the Oct. 6 release of the "Windows phones," as it calls them, which will feature Microsoft's newest mobile phone software, Windows Mobile 6.5. The software is said to offer users an improved, easy-to-use interface, better browsing capabilities and access to services, including My Phone backup and Microsoft's soon-to-launch mobile applications store. The hope, too, is that it will offer Microsoft greater market share in the smartphone arena.
"They really are becoming less relevant to a lot of general mobile phone users," analyst Ken Hyers, with Technology Business Research (TBR), told eWEEK, "but a lot of it is Microsoft's own fault. I guess visibility is the big thing."
On the Windows Mobile blog, Microsoft's general manager for product management, Stephanie Ferguson, described the research the company had done in preparation for the new software, and wrote in a Sept. 1 post, "Interestingly enough, we discovered that most people who carry a Windows phone don't realize it's running Windows Mobile."
When the new phones launch Oct. 6 "You'll see us try to simplify our branding so it's easier for people to know when they're carrying a Windows phone easier to find them in stores," wrote Ferguson.
On Sept. 2, HTC announced that the HTC Touch 2 would feature 6.5, and Sony Ericsson said the same of the Xperia X2. On Sept. 3, LG Electronics said that three of its smartphone models set to arrive in the coming weeks will feature 6.5, and that by the end of 2010, it would be on 13 models. The software is also expected on smartphones from Samsung, HP and Toshiba.
The access to, and launch of, the Windows Marketplace for Mobile application store is another important way that Microsoft is trying to better compete in the smartphone space and better establish its name- a somewhat ridiculous premise, given that the company is synonymous with personal computing.
"It's kind of ... funny that Microsoft isn't regarded as a smartphone OS, when they're really one of the original ones," said TBR's Hyers. "But they're steadily losing market share, and with that their relevancy goes away."
Microsoft says it will have 600 applications in its store when it launches, which is well above the handful that Palm's application store opened with, when the Palm Pre launched, but a far cry from the 65,000-and-counting that the Apple App Store offers. Although, Hyers says it's not Apple that represents Microsoft's real competition.
"The elephant in the room is Apple, though what they have is entertainment," Hyers told eWEEK. "Microsoft's focus can't just be entertainment. It really does also have to be a business and enterprise focus. Palm is one thing to look at, but RIM is the other big one to consider."
With the Windows phones, Microsoft definitely seems to be acknowledging this work-play balance. In addition to offering quick access to Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, Windows Mobile 6.5's Internet Explorer Mobile browser, with built-in Adobe Flash Lite support, helps with more necessary tasks such as checking a flight's status or paying a bill. It also includes My Phone, a service for automatically backing up and syncing contacts, messages, photos and music to the Web, making it simpler to manage them and restore the data should the phone be lost or stolen.
"A Windows phone gives people a single phone that works for their whole life, keeping them connected to the people and information they care most about by harnessing the power of the PC, phone and Web, said Todd Peters, corporate VP of Microsoft's Mobile Marketing Group, in a statement. (Surely, by "whole life," Peters is referring to the work and play sides of one's life, and not that users shouldn't update their devices in a year or two...)
With solid enterprise apps and a re-branded image, will the Windows Mobile 6.5 devices be a huge game-changer for Microsoft?
Analyst Roger Kay, with Endpoint Technologies, is doubtful. He points out that the existing code base dictates "to a tremendous degree" what Microsoft can do - unless, like it did with Vista, and like Apple did in the jump to OS X, it throws out most of the existing code. Kay also points out that Apple's iPhone OS is a compact version of OS X, which creates a seamlessness between the device and the desktop and makes for a lot of cross-platform development - a thing Microsoft should be striving for.
While admitting he hasn't yet seen the Marketplace for himself, Kay told eWEEK, "What I've heard about it is that it's an incremental improvement, but it's not a game changer. And what Microsoft needs at this point is a game changer."