Microsoft has finally come up with an answer for its mobile phone operating system conundrum: Take the Zune software and extend it into something unique and fresh. The big question is whether Microsoft has solved the Windows Mobile puzzle too late.
At the Mobile World Congress 2010, Microsoft introduced Windows Phone 7 Series (statement, Techmeme). Clunky name aside, the software giant's take is solid. If you have a Zune HD you'll recognize Microsoft's phone platform immediately. The Zune HD software works well and does what it's supposed to without a lot of clutter. One can only hope that Windows Phone 7 does the same.
Microsoft said Windows Phone 7 represents a "fresh approach" that will layer in simplicity, context, applications and the Web. In a nutshell, Xbox Live games and Zune music are now features of Windows Phone 7. These phones arrive by holiday 2010.
First off, Microsoft appears to be generating some real return on investment for its Zune adventure. Sure, Microsoft is an also-ran on the music player front, but at least it started a mobile operating system. Kudos to the software giant for starting over from scratch.
The elephant in this mobile room is whether Microsoft's move is a case of too little, too late. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that it is in "a crowded market filled with phones that look the same and do the same things." Ballmer added that he challenged his team to deliver a new experience. The team actually built on the Zune experience.
All of that is swell, but at some juncture the mobile phone platform wars will settle out. I'd be more optimistic if Windows Phone 7 devices were going to launch in the second quarter. The fourth quarter launch complicates matters for Microsoft. If Windows Phone 7 devices land in September the software giant has a shot. If these phones launch in November, Microsoft may have issues.
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Why? If Microsoft is taking share from any company it will be RIM. It's highly unlikely that Google Android and Apple phone buyers will even consider a Windows-powered phone. In addition, RIM hasn't rolled out its next-gen plans. If Microsoft beat RIM to the punch it would have a nice shot with Windows Phone 7.
Today, we're clearly in a mobile renaissance period. We've got innovation from Google's Android, Apple's iPhone, RIM's BlackBerry---assuming the company delivers something next-gen in 2010---Palm's WebOS and a new flavor of Symbian from Nokia. If Microsoft gets its mobile act together you can argue that the mobile industry will have six perfectly fine mobile platforms across the globe.
We all know how this movie turns out. You have six companies duking it out. A few years from now it's four. Then three. Then the days of a happy duopoly.
We're far from duopoly days, but you have to wonder if Microsoft can make the first cut to four. Android is coming on strong with an army of devices. Apple's iPhone's App Store alone will keep it in the game. RIM needs to innovate, but still has a commanding 41.6 percent smartphone platform market share in the U.S., according to comScore. Microsoft has 18 percent behind Apple's 25.3 percent in the U.S. based on comScore data.
Microsoft's challenge will be to hold market share for about 7 months (best case scenario) as Android grows at a frenetic pace. Microsoft says its Windows Phone 7 devices won't launch until the holidays. Meanwhile, the days where Microsoft could announce a platform and freeze a market are long gone---especially in mobile. How much will Microsoft have to play catch up by the holidays?
Chances are Microsoft will have a huge gap to close by the fourth quarter. ChangeWave Research recently documented future smart phone buying intentions. It's all about the iPhone and Android. Windows Mobile is an afterthought at this point---and that's the OS that's holding the fort.
If you assume Microsoft's mobile platform share further erodes the Windows Phone 7 launch will have to be big to compete. That's why you hear the stray rumors about Microsoft buying Research in Motion.
There's a lot to be excited about with Windows Phone 7. Indeed, I think Microsoft has finally figured it out. We'll see if Microsoft has found the answers too late to matter though.
End note: As a Verizon Wireless customer with an upgrade available I just don't see the point in moving. For starters, RIM's OS upgrade has made the Storm more palatable. In addition, the app selection for the BlackBerry has improved dramatically (amazing what a Sirius app can do). Every time I research a platform I find some sort of dealbreaker---tethering is a big one. Simply put, there is no perfect platform yet. And given the way handsets are developing I see no need to jump on the latest greatest thing---especially when I know it'll be trumped in 3 months anyway. While the mobile space is in a renaissance today, it must be damn confusing for the consumer that doesn't follow this space daily.