Microsoft representatives -- all the way up to Steve Ballmer -- have repeated on many occasions the mantra that the company is "all in" with the cloud. Microsoft likes that vow so much that it even made it into a logo for its cloud services.This public display of affection for cloud computing has some of us wondering, though, whether the company is just as committed to the mobile market. When Windows Phone 7 was unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona back in February, it generated a lot of excitement and some good reviews. The fresh, simple Zune-like interface, so unlike the old Windows Mobile, definitely captured the interest of phone fans around the world (Figure A). Figure A
The Windows Phone 7 interface is similar to that of the Zune HD.
At this year's TechEd North America in New Orleans in June, many of us got a chance to see some Windows Phone 7 devices and play with a large demo of the interface. I especially liked its intuitive nature. With every smartphone I've owned, there have been some functions that I couldn't figure out on my own and had to resort to reading the manual. I didn't encounter that with the Windows Phone 7 interface; everything was straightforward and easy.
And it does this without just copying the iPhone's basic idea, which seems to be what Android has done. It feels new and different and nothing like either the iPhone/Android app-centric model or the old Windows Mobile that aspired to be a miniature version of your computer desktop. Instead, it focuses on the data and on seamless integration between applications. This means if you're looking for the phone number of a person you know on Facebook, you don't have to open up a Facebook app and look for that person; that person and his/her contact info will appear in your People hub along with your Exchange contacts.
There are hubs for people, music, photos and video, games, and so forth. Each hub consolidates information from different data sources. This is based on the same general idea as the new Libraries feature in Windows 7, which lets you see all data of a certain type (Documents, Pictures, Music) in one "place" even though that data is located in different folders, on different drives, or even on different computers on your network. Given Microsoft's "all in" stance on the cloud, it's no surprise that Windows Phone 7 is heavily integrated with cloud-based data sources, as well. To read more about the unique aspects of the interface, read this Gizmodo article about Windows Phone 7.
Now that Windows Phone 7 has been released to manufacturing and is expected to launch in October, the tech industry is watching closely to see whether Microsoft has a winner.
Late out of the gate
It all looks and feels great, but everyone acknowledges that Microsoft is late out of the gate with a modern mobile OS, and has a lot of catching up to do. Some people are concerned that, as innovative and cool as the Windows Phone 7 interface is, it's lacking some features that competitors have, such as copy and paste and multitasking for third-party apps. Never mind that the first versions of the iPhone didn't have them, either; iPhone and Android have them now. Microsoft's v1 has to compete with iPhone v4 and Android v2.2, not with those platforms' earlier efforts.
Microsoft is going up against two very strong frontrunners. The iPhone has the advantage of being first with a truly user friendly touchscreen phone, as well as the Apple mystique behind it. Android has a big selling point: it's free -- and that refers not just to the cost of the operating system but also to the open source nature of that OS.
The other disadvantage of coming late to the game is the lack of apps for the platform. There are many thousands of applications made for Windows Mobile 6.x and prior, but those won't work on Windows Phone 7.
Android Market boasts "tens of thousands" of apps, and the Apple App Store claims over 200,000. But based on my informal surveys of users, most people care less about how many apps are available and more about whether they can get the right apps. Microsoft might do better in stressing quality over quantity. I know that despite Apple's infamous vetting process, some of the apps I've downloaded from the App Store for my iPad have been pretty disappointing. When it's a free app, that's merely an annoyance; when I've paid for it, it makes me a pretty unhappy camper to discover that it doesn't work well or doesn't do what I expected.
Despite the late start and the formidable competition, Microsoft does have some key advantages in this race. If the company plays its cards right, Windows Phone 7 could catch on in a big way. According to some reports, the company has allocated at least $400 million to marketing the phone, in addition to the cost of payments to developers and subsidies to handset manufacturers.
The trick will be for Microsoft to use that money wisely. Cute and clever ads may not be enough; the company needs to get the word out to consumers and enterprises about what Windows Phone 7 will do for them that other platforms won't. One of those things is its tight integration with Xbox. By making that a big part of the Windows Phone 7 experience, Microsoft may win over dedicated gamers. Eventually, the plan is to enable users to play games with each other in real time from the phone to console.
Another advantage is Microsoft's longstanding partnership with many top hardware vendors such as Samsung and HTC. These companies have manufactured some of the top rated Android phones and can be depended on to provide high-quality devices. Like Android, and unlike Apple, the Microsoft phones will offer users choices rather than expecting one size to fit all.
Because Microsoft has taken its time bringing Windows Phone 7 to market, the company has (we hope) been able to work out the vast majority of bugs and produce a v1 product that works well. Terry Myerson, the corporate vice president of Windows Phone Engineering at Microsoft, said that Windows Phone 7 is the most thoroughly tested mobile platform Microsoft has ever released.
Microsoft is also making some big efforts to ramp up the app offerings prior to release. The company is supplying free beta tools to developers now, on the Windows Phone Developer Home page and, according to the Windows Phone Developer blog, as of late August, over 300,000 developers had downloaded the tools.The interface for Visual Studio 2010 Express for Windows Phone Beta (Figure B) makes it easy to develop Silverlight and XNA applications. Figure B
Microsoft's development tools for Windows Phone 7 make it easy to create Silverlight apps and XNA games.
There have been reports that Microsoft has offered to pay substantial amounts to developers of iPhone apps to port those products to Windows Phone 7. There are also reports that the company, which has promised every Microsoft employee a Windows Phone 7 phone at launch, is heavily encouraging those employees to develop apps themselves. These strategies make sense, as the app market will be an important factor in whether Microsoft is able to win over smartphone users. But in order to get developers to commit to Windows Phone 7, they need to believe that Microsoft is committed, too.
The commitment question
At the TechEd event mentioned above, I talked to several developers who expressed very mixed feelings about the Windows Phone 7 platform. They were excited about building apps for the environment, but they were disappointed that the phone wasn't given more of a center stage role in Bob Muglia's keynote speech (which focused primarily on the cloud and only included a brief demo of the phone) and on the exhibit floor, where the Windows Phone booth was kind of hidden rather than front and center. They were also unhappy that there were fewer breakout sessions on Windows Phone 7 development than they would have liked. One noted that they weren't "feeling the love" from Microsoft.
This was several months ago, before the news out of Redmond about the big marketing budget. Half a billion dollars would seem to indicate that the company is serious about making the phone a success. But will consumers see it that way? The Kin debacle has some folks I've talked with nervous about investing money and time in a Windows Phone 7 device.
Aimed at teenagers (but requiring a data plan that was priced too high for most teens' budgets), the Kin focused on social networking and media. When Microsoft canceled the Kin in June, it rolled the Kin development team into the Windows Phone 7 team and said they would incorporate its ideas and technologies into future Windows Phone 7 releases.
Discontinuing the Kin only six weeks after it launched may have been the right thing to do -- many in the industry had criticized Microsoft for dividing its phone efforts between the Kin and Windows Phone 7 -- but it couldn't help but make some potential customers wary. That's especially true coming soon after the company disappointed many of us by discontinuing work on the Courier two-screen tablet that had many tech enthusiasts excited. Combine that with other products Microsoft has dropped recently, from Microsoft Money to Microsoft Essential Business Server to its Vine social networking service, and you can see why some might think the company has a problem with commitment.
Another important question is which carriers are committed to Microsoft and which aren't. We know that AT&T has been designated the premier carrier in the United States, and plan to have at least three models ready to go at launch time.
Back in February, Microsoft indicated that the phones would be distributed through all four of the major U.S. carriers, but that was before the killing of the Kin, which is said to have cost Verizon a pretty penny. Some are now speculating that Verizon won't be carrying Windows Phone 7 devices, based on a leaked Verizon roadmap for 2010-2011.
On the other hand, there are also rumors that HTC is in talks with Verizon about carrying one of its Windows Phone 7 phones, and neither Microsoft nor Verizon have confirmed or denied anything.
The carrier issue could be a dealbreaker for some users. I've talked to many users who would have bought an iPhone if Verizon carried it, but they are not willing to go to AT&T for it. To some, the carrier and network are more important than the phone itself. Deserved or not, AT&T has gotten a bad reputation due to connectivity problems that arose with the iPhone. If Verizon decides to go "all in" with Android and bypass Windows Phone 7, I know some folks who will probably be getting Droids instead of the Windows phones they had been looking forward to purchasing.
The release of Windows Phone 7 is finally right around the corner, but many of us who like the looks of it haven't yet committed to getting one, for a variety of reasons. Some are wary of a version 1 device and the features that are missing. Some are waiting to see what apps are available and how Microsoft's app store will work. Others will base their decisions on carrier choice. And still others plan to wait and see whether Microsoft remains committed to the platform, perhaps not realizing that if everyone does the same, that could cause the company to withdraw the product just as disappointing sales did with the Kin.
Horse racing fans know that a slow start doesn't necessarily mean defeat; we've watched thoroughbreds like Zenyatta come from dead last to overtake the frontrunners too many times. And Microsoft has done it before -- with IE overtaking Netscape, Windows Server overtaking NetWare, Office overtaking WordPerfect. Does the old workhorse still have what it takes to win this race? We'll find out soon.
More about Windows Phone 7
- Windows Phone 7 through a developer's eyes
- Developer poll: Do you need a third major mobile development platform?
- A look at some Windows Phone 7 apps (images)
- Windows Phone 7 preview (photos)
- Windows Phone 7 enterprise features overview
- Windows Phone 7 shows its game side (photos)
- Digging into Windows Phone 7 (photos)
- Windows Phone 7 Series wish list
- Inside the making of Windows Phone 7 (images)
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.