Windows Phone 7, Facebook-Bing Alliance Marked Microsoft's Week

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 launch, its deeper partnership with Facebook over Bing search tools, and a monster Patch Tuesday were the highlights of the company's week.

Microsoft focused this week on launching Windows Phone 7, the company's newest smartphone platform and its next best chance at reversing its market-slide.

"I've been looking forward to this day for some time," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told media and analysts gathered for the company's New York City launch event Oct. 11. "We set out to build a phone that was thoroughly modern."

By "modern," he meant a smartphone whose hardware and design principles will allow it to compete against Google Android devices, the Apple iPhone, and Research In Motion's revamped BlackBerry 6 OS. Unlike those devices, whose operating systems offer users grid-like pages of individual apps, Windows Phone 7 consolidates Web content and applications into six subject-specific "Hubs," such as "People" and "Games."

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Over the past several quarters, Microsoft has seen its mobile market share fall against those competitors. The October 2009 release of Windows Mobile failed to slow that decline. "We were ahead of the game, and now we find ourselves No. 5 in the market," Ballmer told an audience during the D8 conference in June.

Microsoft could spend as much as $400 million on its initial marketing campaign for the platform, estimates Deutsche Bank analyst Jonathan Goldberg. At launch, Windows Phone 7 will only be available on GSM-based networks such as AT&T and T-Mobile, with Verizon availability expected for early 2011.

The first Windows Phone 7 smartphone, the Samsung Focus, will hit the marketplace Nov. 8 on AT&T, to be followed within a few weeks by two other devices. Microsoft executives are suggesting that nine devices in total will launch during the initial rollout period.

As the premiere U.S. carrier, AT&T's phones include the LG Quantum ($199), which features a physical QWERTY keyboard; the HTC Surround ($199), with a slide-out speaker and a kickstand; and the Samsung Focus ($199), which AT&T claims will be the thinnest of the initial Windows Phone 7 devices.

Microsoft has imposed fairly strict hardware requirements on its manufacturing partners, dictating that all devices feature three mechanical buttons and a "pane of touch-screen glass" form-factor, in a bid to avoid the excessive hardware-and-software fragmentation that marked the Windows Mobile franchise. Microsoft is also using that form-factor discipline to differentiate Windows Phone 7 from Google Android, which it claims is plunging down that same path towards fragmentation.

However, in the months leading up to the launch, Microsoft made no official mention of its manufacturing partners adding QWERTY keyboards and the like, hinting that the OEMs may have pushed back against those hardware requirements.

Joe Belfiore, Microsoft's corporate vice president and director of Windows Phone program management, also mentioned during the launch event that cut-and-paste-a user-interface option previously announced as being unavailable during Windows Phone 7's initial release-will make an appearance in the beginning of 2011. Some early criticism was aimed at cut-and-paste's unavailability.

Windows Phone 7 managed to eclipse most of Microsoft's other news for the week. However, the company's deepened partnership with Facebook, announced Oct. 13, managed to send the blogosphere briefly a-twitter. Specifically, Microsoft and Facebook have partnered on a set of new social-search features available via Bing.

The first feature, Liked Results, displays the Websites and links "liked" by a Facebook user's friends. For example, a search for "The Social Network" will not only bring up the standard-issue set of search results, but it will also display your friends' Facebook profile images beside the pages they liked-"So, you can lean on friends to figure out the best Websites for your search," reads an Oct. 13 note on The Facebook Blog.

The other feature, Facebook Profile Search, allows Bing to leverage a user's Facebook connections to deliver more relevant results. "Those with whom you have mutual friends will now show up first," reads The Facebook Blog's posting. "Bing is also making more prominent the ability to add these people as friends on Facebook directly from Bing."

Microsoft had previously friended Facebook with a $240 million investment for a 1.6 percent stake in the social network. During an Oct. 13 presentation, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on stage with Microsoft executives to talk about how social tools could enhance more generalized Web search.

"We're hard-wired so that information about people is the most interesting information we track in the world," Zuckerberg told the audience.

For its part, Microsoft likely hopes that a fresh layer of Facebook data will allow Bing to compete even more robustly with Google, which recently added real-time search results in a bid to streamline its service. Various analytics firms peg Bing's U.S. search-engine market share at somewhere between 27 and 30 percent, while Google occupies between 65 and 71 percent.

Microsoft also issued a massive Patch Tuesday update, with 16 security bulletins targeted at 49 vulnerabilities, including a privilege escalation bug exploited by Stuxnet. However, the more urgent patches had nothing to do with that particularly vicious worm.

"The Internet Explorer bulletin along with the Embedded OpenType bug fixes should make it to the top of the -fix it' list for everyone because they can both be used for dangerous drive-by attacks," Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle, is quoted as saying. "Don't wait; get these patches installed as quickly as possible."

Hopefully, that's one Microsoft-related message that won't be drowned out by other news.