Windows Phone 7 a balancing act

Microsoft must tread fine line between control and allowing device makers freedom to tailor new mobile platform to their needs, industry analyst notes.

Microsoft, with its new mobile OS, needs to tread the fine line between control and allowing manufacturers freedom to tailor the platform to their needs, according to an analyst.

The software giant made a big splash at this week's Mobile World Congress revealing its latest update to the Windows Mobile OS, called Windows Phone 7. Devices carrying the new OS are expected to be available toward the end of this year.

Low-cost handsets on show

Amid the attention on Windows Mobile smartphones at the Mobile World Congress this week in Barcelona, Spain, other device makers showed off low-cost handsets aimed at emerging markets.

Telegent and Brightstar announced a low-cost handset capable of receiving free-to-air TV broadcasts for the Latin American and African markets, in a bid to capture fans interested in watching this year's FIFA World Cup matches.

HTC and Telefonica O2 also announced a deal to bring a low-cost smartphone made by HTC, to Telefonica's operations in Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

China Unicom and Huawei, too, expressed interest in the low-cost smartphone segment, noting that a bigger smartphone user base would be beneficial to the uptake of 3G. Huawei said a US$150-smartphone would target the mass market audience.

According to reports, the new release is a complete revamp of Microsoft's legacy mobile software, where the Windows Phone OS will not be backward-compatible with existing Windows Mobile apps.

Microsoft also announced it would lay down strict criteria for handset makers, fixing specification standards such as screen size and capacitive touchscreens. OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will also not be able to place custom UIs (user interfaces) over the OS, deviating from what makers such as HTC, had done with earlier versions of Windows Mobile.

Aloysius Choong, IDC's Asia-Pacific personal systems research manager, said in a phone interview that such decisions will help ensure a more consistent user experience, making it easier for developers to code apps for the devices without having to account for multiple device variations.

In a previous ZDNet Asia report, some coders had branded Windows Mobile as backward, in comparison with features offered on the iPhone and Android platforms.

Choong added that while consistency is an important step, Microsoft should exercise caution as it treads the line between exercising control over its devices and allowing OEMs the freedom to decide what is best for their customers.

He described a scenario in which Qwerty keypad devices sold better in a country, regardless of the availability of devices that offer quality touchscreen. Microsoft's insistence that Windows Phone devices are built with more expensive capacitive screens may turn some OEMs off, he said.

"OEMs have their own opinions on the markets they want to pursue," said Choong.

Microsoft, comparatively, has far less market power in the mobile industry as it does in the desktop OS space, so it is in no position to dictate conditions to OEMs, he noted.

"It's a tricky issue that Microsoft will need to watch carefully," he said.

Mobile marketshare slipping
According to IDC numbers, nearly 900,000 Windows Mobile devices were shipped in the third quarter of 2009 across the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan. This figure was the same in the third quarter of 2008.

However, Choong said Microsoft's smartphone market share in the region dropped from 11 percent in third quarter of 2008 to 9 percent in the same quarter last year, because of higher overall shipments for the smartphone industry.

"Right now, it's fair to say Microsoft is moving in the right direction. But when it comes to [user experience], the devil is in the details," he said, adding that industry observers will have to wait for the first Windows Phones to debut, to see how consumers take to the feel of the OS.

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