Today Microsoft introduced an enormous, beautiful boulder it will attempt to push up a hill with a $400 million marketing budget as a lever. That enormous beautiful boulder, of course, is the new Windows Phone 7 (WP7, the phone) and Windows Mobile 7 (WM7, the operating system), and the hill is the 80 percent-plus market share that Apple and Android hold in current smartphone sales, and the hurdle of the spectacular failure of the two Kin phones earlier this year.
Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer, already under pressure because of past mobile failures such as Kin, unveiled the WM7 OS and nine phone models from four suppliers: Samsung, LG, HTC and Dell. The first model will be Samsung Focus, which will go on sale at AT&T on Nov. 8 for $199.99. The Focus will feature Samsung’s 4-inch super bright AMOLED screen, a 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, 8 GB of built in memory and a 5 MP camera. Coming a few weeks later from AT&T will be two additional phones, the HTC Surround and the LG Quantum, both with 1 GHz Snapdragon processors, both with 16 GB built in, and both priced at $199.99. The multimedia Surround sports a. 3.5-inch LCD, slide-up Dolby stereo speakers and a kickstand. The Quantum is equipped with a three-line slide down horizontal QWERTY keyboard.
While no official announcement was made, leaked reports have the HTC HD7 as the first T-Mobile Windows Phone sometime later this year.
Ballmer stressed two main themes for the OS: “always delightful” – a pretty user interface – and “wonderfully mine” – a wide range of customization options. Microsoft hopes its refresh of the Kin operating system will induce current smartphone owners to switch and induce more mainstream consumers to switch from their flip phones to a WP7 device.
Microsoft’s bat sales pitch is WM7’s fresh interface approach. Instead of iPhone’s and Android’s rigid grid of application icons, WM7 uses brightly colored square and oblong tiles, either one or two across the screen, and some clever icon animation to showcase usage “hubs” – a People hub for contacts, a Music & Video hub (essentially an expanded Zune), a Games Hub with xBox Live, and a Marketplace hub for apps. In addition, WP7 will include Outlook Mobile, Bing Search, Calendar, Explorer and a new iteration of Mobile Office, which will include cellphone-friendly versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint with which you can both read imported files and create new ones. Messaging, phone and email tiles display a large numerical indicator of waiting activity within that tile. All san serif in text in all menus and apps is large, clean and highly readable, even from a distance. Demos indicate iPhone-like smooth scrolling and intuitive design.
WM7 development head Joe Belfiore demonstrated several tricks designed to minimize clicks. One of the most impressive was the OneNote and Outlook integration – an email with an invite includes possible scheduling conflicts and direct links to an Outlook calendar to shift appointments around.
Also impressive is the direct camera key, which wakes up the phone and places it immediately in camera mode to quickly capture fast moving events.
Since the phones are coming from AT&T, carrier president Ralph De la Vega demonstrated mobile U-Verse. U-Verse subscribers will be able to download shows right to the phone for viewing. Since U-Verse isn’t available nationwide, non-U-Verse subscribers can subscribe to a monthly service to access programs.
Belfiore noted “hundreds of thousands” of the Silverlight-based SDK have been downloaded, and there will be “thousands” of WM7 apps available by the time the phone. Belfiore demonstrated apps for eBay and IMDb, along with SIMS 5 in the gaming area.
In many ways, the evolution of WM7 mirrors the iPhone operating system. This first generation of phones are all GSM (Ballmer did not mention when CDMA versions would be coming). While not addressed (there was no Q&A), WM7 reportedly won’t initially support Flash or multi-tasking, and won’t include WiFi hotspots, obvious points of differentiation with iPhone that were not mentioned and so were conspicuous by their absence. Update: CDMA phones will start showing up early next year, notably with Sprint’s HTC 7 Pro
But the question isn’t how sweet some of WM7’s functionality is or how sweet the initial devices will be. Microsoft’s problem is perception – of being a business phone maker entering a consumer field already dominated by two well-known brands with well established and healthy consumer constituencies. The company will spend a reported $400 million in marketing WM7, aided ably by the company’s hardware and carrier partners, to push the WM7 boulder up a steep hill.