Windows Phone 7: Ready to fill the gap, or 12 months too late?

Jason Hiner has two conflicting ideas about where Windows Phone 7 is headed. Read both and then vote for the one you think is more likely.

I'm of two minds about Windows Phone 7.

There's part of me that is impressed by what Microsoft has created and thinks it has a legitimate shot at finding a place in the market. But, there's another part of me that thinks the company waited too long and faces an uphill battle to win over consumers, phone makers, and wireless carriers.

Here's a quick summary of both arguments, and a poll for you to vote on the one that you think has the most merit.

Why it could fill the gap

As I've said before, I applaud Microsoft for having the courage to do a complete reboot of its mobile platform. That's something BlackBerry and Nokia chose not to do, and based on what I've seen of BlackBerry 6 and Symbian 3, both of them now find themselves trailing Windows Phone 7 in the mobile innovation race.

I never considered there to much space between Apple iPhone and Google Android — the two hottest mobile platforms on the planet. However, when I consider what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows Phone 7, I'm starting to think there may be some wiggle room between the two red-hot platforms.

Windows Phone 7 has a user interface with simplicity and polish similar to the iPhone, but with customization capabilities similar to Android. That's where WP7 has a chance to make its mark. For those who want the fit and finish of iPhone but don't want to be locked into the Apple ecosystem, Windows Phone 7 will now rival Android as the top alternative.

Then there's the WP7 integration with Microsoft Office and SharePoint, which will appeal to many SMBs and enterprises that are already running Windows desktops and Windows servers. A lot of those companies are currently running BlackBerry for mobile. I suspect that we'll see many of them simplify their IT and save a lot of money by ditching their BlackBerry BES and using Windows Phone 7 with Exchange ActiveSync.

Why it could be too late

If Windows Phone 7 had been released a year ago, it might have been a threat to challenge iPhone and Android for momentum in the smartphone race — both in terms of sales and winning over developers.

But, the smartphone market has coalesced around iPhone and Android in 2010. Sure, Nokia and BlackBerry are still hanging around, but they've steadily lost market share and have failed to keep up in the innovation race. Both of them are in danger of a precipitous free fall over the next 12-24 months.

That would open the door for Microsoft to take third place in the mobile market behind Android and iPhone. It will be in a dogfight for that third place spot with not only Nokia and BlackBerry but also a resurgent Palm webOS with the help of its new owner, HP.

Why should iPhone and Android simply be anointed the top two spots? The iPhone is approaching 300,000 apps, and Android has about 100,000. In other words, the developers have already picked the winners. The UIs on these two platforms are also similar enough (Android mimics iPhone in many respects) that it's not too difficult to port apps from one platform to the other, even though they're built on different programming languages.

Unfortunately, that's not the case for Windows Phone 7. The UI is so different from iPhone and Android  that developers won't be able to easily port their iPhone/Android apps. They'll need to recreate the wheel in many respects to accommodate WP7's text-based menu structure and tile-based images.

With developers, Microsoft's best hope is to convert the legions of third-party coders who have previously worked on software development projects involving Windows, Office, or other Microsoft technologies but haven't yet made the jump to mobile software. Microsoft also has strong partnerships with many of the large development houses such as Adobe and Electronic Arts. Leveraging those partnerships could help generate some initial buzz that could propel the platform forward and get more third party developers to take a chance on WP7.

Microsoft also needs to hope for an Android stumble. If Google can't do a better job of standardizing the Android OS, then the platform is in danger of badly fragmenting to the point that it will turn off developers and phone buyers. However, I expect Google will take a stronger hand and get the situation under control. And, if that's the case, then Google and Microsoft will be courting the same smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers. Both groups are more likely to choose Android, because there are no licensing fees attached and they can do more to manipulate it because it's open source. For now, companies like HTC, Samsung, and LG are supporting both of the platforms until the market sorts out the winner, but they won't support both indefinitely unless they're both a popular success.

You decide

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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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