While Microsoft placed the cloud front-and-center at its Worldwide Partner Conference this week, it also devoted substantial amounts of executive talk time-and a substantial booth on the convention-hall floor-to its smartphone initiatives. Microsoft is preparing to launch Windows Phone 7, which it touts as a complete revamp of its mobile platform, sometime near the end of 2010.
“The phone is going through a massive inflection point,” Andy Lees, senior vice president of Microsoft’s Mobile Communications Business, told an audience during his keynote in Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center July 13. “There’s this immense competition but in many respects, things are just beginning.”
Windows Phone 7’s approach to the smartphone user interface differs from competitors such as the iPhone, which offers screens of individual applications arranged in a gridlike pattern; Microsoft chose to instead consolidate Web content and applications into subject-specific “Hubs” such as “Office” or “Games.” The smartphones will be paired with a new Windows Phone Marketplace, where developers will be able to submit five free applications (rising to $19.99 after that) along with an unlimited number of paid applications.
Given that Windows Phone 7 represents a total reset for Microsoft-devices running its current mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 6.5, will not be able to upgrade-the company needs it to thrive if it wants to maintain a viable position in the smartphone arena, where its market share has been slowly declining over the past few quarters.
Apart from Microsoft’s eventual marketing strategy, Windows Phone 7 will likely need the following factors to prove a success.
Poor hardware or software could doom Windows Phone 7 in short order. Take the case of the iPhone 4: Although Apple sold 1.7 million of the next-generation smartphone within its first three days of release in June, subsequent issues with the device’s exterior antenna rim have threatened to tarnish the iPhone’s reputation-one established via previous generations of innovative, well-built devices.
Because of those years of accumulated goodwill, the iPhone will almost certainly survive this latest crisis-but newborn Windows Phone 7 doesn’t have the user base or status to survive a similar situation. A major hardware defect in one of its devices, or an endemic software bug, could short-circuit a rollout.
In the same spirit, a half-baked release build-loaded with smaller bugs, or sluggish when performing most functions-could lead to the proverbial death of a thousand cuts, with potential users choosing a rival device perceived as more reliable.
Microsoft seems to realize the task for it. “All the stuff has to work pretty well, it has to be quick, it has to be stable,” Casey McGee, a spokesperson for Microsoft, told eWEEK in a July 13 interview at WPC. “We need to launch with a marketplace that shows we have a variety of applications that can be used on a daily basis.”
In other words, Windows Phone 7 needs to be as perfect as possible from the outset.
Windows Phone 7 needs third-party developers. According to reports, Microsoft has been offering to pay developers of popular iPhone applications to port their wares over to Windows Phone 7; at TechEd in June, Microsoft made a concerted effort to push the platform onto more business-centric designers.
During the WPC, Microsoft prodded developers yet again, with the July 12 release of its Windows Phone Developer Tools Beta. The tools are available from this site.
Windows Phone 7 will leverage Silverlight and XMA to build rich content and 3D games. Features for developers include a Microsoft Location Service, for acquiring location information via a single point of reference; Microsoft Notification Service, for pushing information to the device; Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Express for Windows Phone; and a Windows Phone 7 Series Emulator for testing.
“The term ‘beta’ is understood to mean that things are close to finished,” Brandon Watson, Microsoft’s director of developer experience for Windows Phone 7, wrote in a July 12 posting on The Windows Phone Developer Blog. “It’s time to get serious about building the actual apps and games for Windows Phone 7 that consumers will be looking for starting this holiday season.”
But third-party developers need the assurance that building apps for Windows Phone 7-and all the costs and human hours associated with that endeavor-will ultimately prove profitable. If Windows Phone 7 devices sell well at the outset-and if those early developers see a resulting cash bounty-then its Marketplace will grow as more developers join the party.
There are signs of interest in developing for Windows Phone 7. An April survey by Appcelerator, which builds platforms for native mobile- and desktop-application development, found that the percentage of developers “very interested” in Windows Phone 7 platform climbed from 13 percent in January to 34 percent by the end of March. During that same period, interest in BlackBerry development climbed from 21 percent to 43 percent, while interest in Android and the iPhone narrowed to a respective 81 percent and 87 percent.
What Windows Phone 7 Needs to Succeed
OEMs on Board
For much of its history, Microsoft could count on its hardware partners being solidly in its corner. When it comes to many form factors-particularly traditional PCs-that still holds true. But Microsoft’s recent experiences in the tablet PC arena demonstrate that, despite their history of fidelity, those partners are more than happy to consider alternative operating systems to Windows when it comes to their offerings.
A number of manufacturers are reportedly considering Google Android as the operating system for a selection of upcoming tablets. In addition, Hewlett-Packard recently confirmed that its newly acquired Palm WebOS will serve as the operating system for its own tablet PC offerings, among other hardware products; it remains an open question whether HP will also build flat touch-screen devices that incorporate Windows 7.
HP will also likely use the Palm WebOS for any upcoming smartphone offerings; and a number of manufacturers have been producing smartphones installed with Google Android. That presents issues for Microsoft as it tries to convince those same partners that Windows Phone 7 deserves their full backing.
“On the phone side, we missed a generation with Windows Mobile. We really did miss a release cycle,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the audience during his WPC keynote on July 12. “But Windows Phone 7 received quite nice reviews. We will give you a set of Windows-based devices that people will be proud to carry home.”
In addition to trumpeting Windows Phone 7’s quality, one of Microsoft’s strategies revolves around making Android-which currently holds a small-but-growing portion of the smartphone OS market-seem too fragmented across multiple types of devices for its own good.
“One of the problems that phones are going through right now is fragmentation,” Lees said during his keynote. “For developers and ISVs, it makes it very difficult. We’re making sure our software is fully optimized.”
However many manufacturers sign on to create devices, they will be restricted to a form factor with three physical buttons and an iPhone-like touch screen. Microsoft hasn’t announced specific devices from those manufacturers, however, suggesting that negotiations continue.
Apple, Android Problems
Windows Phone 7 will face an intimidating competitive landscape come year-end, when it will compete not only with the iPhone 4 and yet another Google Android operating-system build, but also with the new-and-improved BlackBerry OS 6.
Issues with any of these smartphone platforms, on par with or greater than the public-relations problem currently facing Apple with the iPhone 4’s antenna, will weaken their competitive position. That might not create a market-share upset for Windows Phone 7, but such a crisis would perhaps incline buyers to take a second look at Microsoft’s offering.
Ballmer likes to tell audiences that Microsoft is “all in” with regard to the cloud. But as Windows Phone 7 approaches launch, it’s clear that the company is “all in” on the platform as its savior in the mobile space, as well.