Microsoft Partners: Bring on Windows Phone 7

With Microsoft's release of the Windows Phone 7 developer tools beta and the impending delivery of preproduction preview devices to developers representing major milestones, Microsoft and its partners say there is light at the end of the tunnel as the company braces to compete with Apple and Android in the mobile space.

WASHINGTON - With Microsoft's release of the Windows Phone 7 developer tools beta and the impending delivery of preproduction preview devices to developers representing major milestones, Microsoft and its partners say there is light at the end of the tunnel as the company continues its move to reinvent itself in the smartphone space.

Microsoft launched the beta of its developer tools for Windows Phone 7 on July 12 and will begin shipping preproduction preview devices to developers on July 19, said Brandon Watson, director of developer experience for Windows Phone 7, in a July 12 blog post.

Watson also moderated a session at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) here, where Microsoft partners shared a variety of views on the software giant's mobile platform, competition with the iPhone and Android, and listed their favorite new strategies and features as well as some pet peeves about what Microsoft is doing in the mobile world.

Watson noted that Microsoft has "added enterprise support that our competitors can't add." Indeed, Windows Phone 7 will feature integration with Microsoft's Office and SharePoint technologies, he said. However, unified communications in the form of support for Microsoft's Office Communications Server (OCS) will not be available at launch, Watson added.

"The No. 1 concern for us is making sure we have a great consumer experience," Watson said. "And No. 2 is providing a great development platform for developers to build killer apps," he said.

The call for a great consumer platform comes from the intense pressure the iPhone has placed on its competitors.

"We get a lot of pressure from the iPhone and competitive products for the enterprise," said Bob Maclean, Microsoft Practice Director at RBA Consulting in Minneapolis. MacLean added that his company needs to continue to build rich applications using Microsoft's Silverlight technology to deliver the look and feel users want.

Kurt Brockett, director of user experience (UX) evangelism at IdentityMine, said he believes many companies look at the iPhone as a first check-box item. "I see Windows Phone occupying that second box," he said. "Enterprises are saying you have to have a mobile solution."

"The iPhone comes first before Android," said Erik van Hoof. co-founder, former CEO and current head of business development for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at CWR Mobility BV in Nijmegen, Netherlands. "We see Android coming from IT and iPhone from business. Android is more complex. It is more of a Windows 6.5 equivalent with Java instead of .NET."

Moreover, van Hoof said with the use of the iPhone and BlackBerry and other smartphones becoming more mainstream, "our biggest growth market is getting all that enterprise information back to the mobile phone."

Indeed, "Mobile is top line for us," MacLean said. "The integration with Office and SharePoint is for us a huge top line revenue opportunity."

Meanwhile, in a move to shake up the session a little, Watson asked whether Microsoft's partners were buying into press reports that Microsoft is dead in the mobile arena.

"If you stay with Windows Mobile 6.5 as it is today, it's going to be a challenge," van Hoof said. "But consumers are making enterprises adopt mobile. And I think you guys just re-invented yourselves."

Indeed, it's curious that Watson should pooh-pooh press reports - though admittedly many have been damning - given the falters in the mobile space and the dreadful false start with the KIN phones that left egg on the company's face. And Microsoft's own CEO admitted at the WPC: "We missed a generation on the phone. We missed almost a full release cycle."

And in his July 14 keynote at WPC, Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer, said of Microsoft's history in the phone space, "This has been tough. This is a low light. But in the October/November time frame the game will change."

And taking the opportunity to make a swipe at Apple, Turner added: "You're going to be able to use a Windows Phone 7 and not have to worry about how you're holding it to make a phone call. It looks like that iPhone 4 might be their Vista. And I'm OK with that."

Meanwhile, IdentityMine's Brockett said despite its traction with developers, Android does not seem to be doing enough to court the enterprise. "One place I don't see Android doing a great job is in being out there pounding the pavement and watching for what and how they can get enterprise apps onboard." But Microsoft is clearly doing that, he said.

In addition, the Microsoft partners lauded the Microsoft strategy of enabling developers to be able to use existing skills to develop for the Windows Phone 7.

"Our guys are familiar with the tools," MacLean said. "They are already working with Silverlight and XNA."

Brockett said the tools for competing platforms cannot compare with the Microsoft tooling for its mobile platform.

When Watson asked the panel what they considered the most exciting thing about Windows Phone 7, MacLean said, "Finally getting functionality from a consumer perspective that is on par with the market." Another favorite for him is being able to "leapfrog" the competitive issues as "integration with Office and SharePoint are game changers."

Brockett said his favorite thing about Windows Phone 7 will be "having a viable alternative on Verizon. The smartphone is the PC of my generation. We just started to dip our toes into iPhone development, and having the Windows Phone as an alternative is great."

However, reaction to Microsoft's Windows Marketplace for Mobile appears to be mixed.

"Not having a good mechanism to deploy enterprise applications other than going through the app market is a challenge," MacLean said. He noted that some of his customers "don't want any exposure to their competitors" that they have a certain kind of application in their arsenal.

Yet, van Hoof said, "The marketplace is for us our distribution mechanism in general. It's a logical place to go."

Watson then shifted direction with the panel and asked what they thought the one thing Microsoft needed to do to have a successful launch of Windows Phone 7.

"Make sure to launch on Verizon on day one," said Brockett. "The first thing you see gripes about is the network connection. That's the No. 1 reason people would leave a platform."

van Hoof could not limit himself to one thing. "Make sure the marketplace is there; make sure the apps are there," he said. And, "Get a database on that thing," he added.

MacLean simply called for stability. "If it's not stable that could turn people off," he said.

In response to that point Watson said the Windows Phone 7 is solid as of today. "Developer devices are going out next week," he said. "And I use the phone everyday as my primary phone, and for where we are in the development cycle with how many weeks we have to go...the quality is shocking."

Perhaps that is what enables Microsoft's Turner to proclaim during his WPC keynote: "Gosh darn it, I'm glad to be back in the game. The smartphone game is just beginning for where we plan to take it."