Microsoft is on the phone: Could it be a wrong number?

Eugene Lacey: As Orange and T-Mobile prepare to ship mobile phones based on Microsoft Smartphone, can MS meet the reliability expectations of telephony?

People are often unkind about Microsoft. They tell jokes about it. Jokes like this one: What is the only Microsoft product launch that didn't suck? Answer -- the Windows vacuum cleaner. It's an old joke and as with most jokes about the US software giant, it is the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, who usually ends up having the last laugh. He laughs all the way to the bank as a rule.

Gates was probably laughing like a drain last week when his company announced a massive 26 percent rise in revenues for the quarter to September -- bucking the trend of most other technology companies who are, for the most part, still feeling the icy chill of recession.

But the vacuum cleaner joke strikes a chord with anyone who has ever had a computer freeze on them. Most commercially available software is prone to crashes, bugs, and virus attacks that can render it useless. This is not an exclusively Microsoft problem -- but MS gets the most grief over it because more people are using its software than anybody else's.

There are basically two schools of opinion on the unreliability of software: the doves argue that software is so incredibly complex that it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect it to demonstrate the same reliability qualities as, say, a hairdryer. Bill Gates recently said in support of this view that .Net was more complex than getting to the moon or designing the 747.

The hawks will have none of this, and insist that if you buy software you should expect it to do what it says on the box, just as you do when you part with hard earned cash for any other product. Hawks like to draw an analogy with automobile manufacturers, arguing that if cars failed as often as software there would be lot more deaths on the roads.

There is no doubt that Microsoft and other software vendors need to improve the reliability of their products. The unsavoury business of lengthy disclaimer contracts that you are deemed to agree to merely by breaking the shrinkwrap -- and the fact that you don't actually 'own' software but rent the use of it -- all these things suggest that the software business hasn't quite got it when it comes to customer satisfaction.

The reliability of Microsoft software will come under a particularly unforgiving spotlight in the weeks and months ahead as Windows Powered Smartphone software begins to ship on Orange and T-Mobile phones.

The challenge for Microsoft in this market is that phone users have zero tolerance for software that doesn't work. Ask yourself this question -- how often has the software on your Nokia or Ericsson phone crashed? Probably never in most ZDNet UK readers' experience -- or a minute amount of times compared to the number of PC crashes they have experienced.

People have been using landlines for generations. The expectation is that you pick up the receiver, dial a number, and speak -- to more or less anywhere on the planet. We are way past the wonderment phase. Phones are simply expected to work. Telephony, both fixed and wireless, has had some of the best engineering brains of the past one hundred years lavish attention upon it, and the net result of this is that phones deliver on user expectation 99.9 percent of the time.

The first Windows Powered Smartphone that came into this office crashed after ten minutes of use. Our technology editor wanted to see if it could take a voice call while downloading an MP3 file. It couldn't. (A full preview is available here on ZDNet UK Reviews.) A presenter trying out a smartphone on breakfast television this morning also managed to break his phone in minutes. These were beta versions, so there is still time for Microsoft and the network operators to tweak configurations a little before they ship; but you have to say it was not a great start.

Rumours that Microsoft might be getting cold feet on the enormity of this challenge were quashed by Bill Gates in an interview with the Financial Times on Wednesday in which he said: "We have spent millions of dollars to be in that category and our breakthrough product is just now shipping to carriers... we have a long term view of this and are making our investments consistent with that."

If Microsoft stays in the race, as it has a habit of doing, there is every reason to believe Windows Powered Smartphone will be a success in the long run. Right now Symbian has a lead in Europe -- as has previously been reported by ZDNet UK. It is worth noting, however, that some of the leading handset manufacturers and network operators remain firmly agnostic on the subject of operating systems for next generation mobile phones. Samsung, for example, will manufacture the smartphone model offered in the UK by Orange -- but it is also committed to making a Symbian-based phone.

The mobile telephone is the next frontier for Microsoft software. If it is to continue to thrive it has to compete in the market for pocket-sized communications devices -- and that must mean Windows Powered Smartphone as well as Pocket PC. Smartphone vs Symbian is a battle that will be decided by consumer choice -- which is a good thing. To acquit itself well in the fight, Microsoft must demonstrate that it understands the importance of reliability -- even if that is as hard as sending a man to the moon.

To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.