For Windows Phone 7, all of Microsoft comes to play

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 is notable for integrating several different corporate groups in one platform. ZDNet editor Andrew Nusca reports from the company's press conference in New York City.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

NEW YORK -- If there's one thing that's clear after the official debut of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, it's that the new operating system is all in the family -- the corporate family, that is.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took to the stage in New York this morning to officially introduce the company's latest high-profile venture, an update to its maligned mobile platform, calling it "a very different kind of phone" that aims to "bring together the things that you love."

"[The difference in our approach is that it's] not just what you're going to do with the phone, but how you do it," Ballmer said. "We focused in on the way real people use their phones...so you're in, out and back to life."

The operating system, which ZDNet's crack team of writers has already covered in exhaustive detail, was framed as a software platform that is "always delightful" and "wonderfully mine" -- that is, personal.

But the real story is how Microsoft's latest mobile foray showcases nearly every development group within the company, from Bing search to Xbox gaming, to Zune media streaming to Office business content creation.

Flanked by corporate partners, Ballmer introduced nine new Windows Mobile Phone 7 devices, manufactured by companies such as LG, Samsung, HTC and Dell, on more than 60 carriers in more than 30 nations.

Among them were the LG Quantum, which has a full slide out QWERTY keyboard; the HTC Surround, which houses two Dolby surround sound speakers; the Samsung Focus, which features a 4-inch AMOLED display; and the HTC HD7, which sports a 4.3-inch display and a kickstand.

(The first three will be available on AT&T for $199.99 each with contract; the last will be on T-Mobile for an undisclosed price.)

But the software was the primary focus of the announcement, which threatens to propel the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant back to the forefront of the mobile industry.

That's because the company is shifting its approach to being more personal, placing focus on "experiences" rather than specifications, features or even competition with its rivals.

In fact, Ballmer and corporate vice president Joe Belfiore both used their personal devices to demonstrate features of the new operating system, a new approach that signals that the company is trying to appeal to the mass market, rather than enthusiasts.

It's a sound move. As the popularity of the Apple iPhone and then Google Android devices has grown, the smartphone has displaced the feature phone across the country.

Until now, the smartphone has appealed to the early adopter, the enthusiast, the geek -- the customer who cares about having the fastest processor and the most memory and the biggest display.

But Microsoft's strategy signals a new approach, one that echoes Apple's own plan for the iPhone: market the device as a problem solver, a life companion, and forget about the stats.

The operating system's quick, graphical, geometric user interface is an extension of the one that debuted on its critically acclaimed but commercially unpopular Zune portable media player. (It does, however, preserve the Zune's signature media streaming service.)

AT&T mobility president Ralph De La Vega said as much in his speech on Monday, calling Microsoft's mobile interface "fun, fast and personal."

It uses square "live tiles" as shortcuts to "hubs" that address specific tasks, such as media streaming or photos or contacts or gaming or business tasks, rather than simply individual applications.

"How can we build a phone that takes those everyday tasks and simplifies them?" Belfiore asked the audience. "How can we take all the power and capability [in phones] and put those in a phone experience that makes them faster and simpler to deal with?"

Belfiore's answer: "smart design," through simplicity and a focus on details, from three common hardware buttons (back, start, search) to your next calendar appointment displayed on your lock screen to built-in voice search functionality using the company's "TellMe" servers.

"We really try to connect to these cloud services in a really interesting way," Belfiore said.

That said, Windows Phone 7 is foremost a consumer play, and it's telling that Ballmer didn't mention any business use cases until halfway into his introductory speech.

Still, it's all there, and as you might expect, Windows Phone 7 has tight, slick integration with Office 2010, including SharePoint, OneNote, Outlook e-mail and calendar and PowerPoint, the last of which you can edit presentation slides on the go.

Add all that to key maps functionality with Bing and gaming capabilities courtesy of Xbox Live and suddenly all of Microsoft is vying for your attention via your pocket.

After watching a full demo from Belfiore and playing with the devices myself, I left the event impressed. While I don't believe Microsoft has leapfrogged ahead of its mobile competition -- primarily Apple's iPhone and Google Android devices -- I do believe it has at least equaled them and in some cases surpassed them, offering a seamless user experience that does, believe it or not, delight.

That means that after several less-than-sure-footed moves in mobile, Microsoft is back with an offering that is at least as compelling as the competition and I dare say more, with regard to some lesser Android devices on the market.

It's hard to think that anything can stop the mobile industry from being dominated by the largest of tech companies: Apple, Google, Microsoft. (One, two, three.)

The big question: will Microsoft's new operating system will play nice with others when it first arrives to U.S. market in early November?

The Zune was a wonderful media player with limitations that left it useless to Mac computer owners; the question is whether Microsoft's mobile offering, connected in every way to the cloud via a bucket of services, will do the same.

Microsoft's phone is wonderful in a controlled Microsoft-only world -- can it survive with users whose allegiances aren't so strong?

And will that be enough of a deterrent to prevent the company from reaching a critical mass of users?

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