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Microsoft launches Windows Phone 7 - six UK handsets on the way

Even Stephen Fry's a fan, apparently...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Even Stephen Fry's a fan, apparently...

Microsoft has finally taken the wraps off the long-awaited reboot of its mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7 (WP7).

It is a completely new OS built entirely from scratch, rather than an evolution of Microsoft's previous mobile software, and marks a break with a troubled mobile past. "We needed to change," said Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's mobile communications business, told the London launch of the OS yesterday. "I decided that we would stop everything and hit a full reset. We started with a clean sheet of paper."

The software behemoth has decided to turn its mobile philosophy on its head. For the first time in mobile, Microsoft is not building software first and foremost for CIOs but rather following in the footsteps of Apple's iOS platform and Google's Android and looking to consumers.

Consequently, WP7 majors on consumer-friendly features such as device personalisation, social networking, games, multimedia and usability.

Microsoft also unveiled the first bevy of new handsets that will run on WP7 - six of which will be available in the UK before Christmas.

The six UK handsets shown off at a London press event yesterday - five of which are due to go on sale on 21 October - are the Dell Venue Pro, the LG Optimus, the HTC HD7, HTC Mozart, HTC 7 Trophy, and the Samsung Omnia 7.

Dell's business-focused WP7 handset - a Qwerty touchscreen slider - will be coming out before Christmas this year, according to a spokeswoman.

Speaking at a press event in New York, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said more than 60 mobile operators in over 30 countries will be bringing WP7 devices to market.

All the WP7 devices conform to Microsoft's minimum hardware specification, with large touchscreens and 1GHz processors. Turn them on and the similarities continue - Microsoft's software does not sanction skins - extra software layers on top of the OS - so mobile operators and mobile makers are limited to producing apps, such as Orange's Orange Wednesdays app or HTC's Sense portal, to differentiate their handsets.

Windows Phone 7 launch: Stephen Fry on stage

Stephen Fry takes the stage to laud Windows Phone 7 - for being better than Windows Mobile
(Photo: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

The London press launch of WP7 included a surprise appearance from actor and tech blogger Stephen Fry. The self-confessed Apple fan told the audience he was not being paid to stand on stage for Microsoft - a company whose mobile software he has been vocally critical of in the past.

"I made no secret of my dislike of Microsoft over many years," said Fry. "So, oh, what joy there is in heaven when a sinner repents. Because, let's be frank, Microsoft were grey, they were featureless, they did concentrate so much on enterprise and tick-boxes for function that they forgot even the greyest number-cruncher in the corporation is a human being first.

"You don't judge the machines you use or the houses you live in or the offices where you work simply by listing their functions."

"So when they did send me one of these [WP7 handsets] about a week or so ago... my first feeling was...

...that it was just fun to play with," Fry added. "People buy things because they feel that emotional engagement, they feel the pleasure of using it - and I have felt enormous pleasure using this phone."

Industry watchers have also reacted favourably to the new OS. "Microsoft is finally well equipped to be a key market player. But, there is also a lot of work to do, to make up for almost two years of uncertainty," Saverio Romeo, senior industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan's European Mobile Communications group, said in a research note.

"Microsoft was right to be bold and create a highly differentiated [Windows Phone 7] experience," added Ian Fogg, principal analyst at Forrester, tweeting from the launch event. "Now they must execute and continue to update it to succeed."

Windows Phone 7 launch: Dell Venue Pro

The Dell Venue Pro Qwerty slider Windows Phone 7 handset will launch before the end of the year
(Photo: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

Before Windows Phone 7, Microsoft had tackled mobile with purely enterprise offerings. But times and users have changed, said Aaron Woodman, director, mobile communications business at Microsoft.

In the early years of the millennium, "where Windows Mobile played a centralised role, devices were very expensive", he said. "Data was really expensive. The types of people that could justify an expensive device and expensive data for email were very very few and so we built for that very very small slice of customer," he noted.

Before the WP7 launch, Woodman told silicon.com he'd talked to some of Microsoft's US enterprise customers about their mobile strategy and device management needs. "First thing I heard was, it turns out in most enterprises the consumers buy the phone," he said.

"Even in Europe, where you actually have a higher distribution of phones from the corporation being handed to you, you still have the overwhelming majority of phones that are coming onto the enterprise campuses or mid-market or small businesses being purchased by consumers.

Business users' main concerns when it comes to mobile are pretty straightforward, according to Woodman: email and calendar access. "Mail and calendar access and being able to do that well and integration are really of the top concern and I think we've nailed the mail client there," he claimed.

As well as email and calendar, WP7 has a...

...dedicated Office hub - where documents can be accessed and created. Notes created in OneNote on the handset are stored on Microsoft's cloud storage facility, SkyDrive, so they can be accessed from any PC. The Office hub also includes access to Microsoft's SharePoint document collaboration platform.

Microsoft is still shipping and supporting its previous mobile offering, Windows Mobile 6.5, which Woodman conceded has a couple of enterprise features not currently found in WP7 - such as greater native language support, a greater range of device form factors and potentially lower cost handsets than the very high-end WP7 devices, which have a minimum device spec set by Microsoft.

Windows Mobile 6.5 may remain the best option for a few businesses with very specific device management needs, according to Woodman. "In really managed spaces, it offers some functionality that no other phone still today offers... being able to manage it at a highly managed client level, being able to utilise Win32 as an API set - those are really very unique. We'll keep that around as long as there's customer demand for that," he noted.

However, give it five years or so, and Windows Mobile's days are probably numbered, in Woodman's view. "In the mid-range time horizon we're not maintaining multiple development platforms and ecosystems," he said.

Windows Phone 7 launch: WP7's Office hub

The Office hub on Windows Phone 7
(Photo: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

He added: "Windows Phone has a very deep and rich roadmap - both for consumers and enterprises... Everyone will make their own comparisons between us and Apple but we've got to where we are in 18 months - imagine where we're going to be in 24 months or three years."

Asked whether Microsoft is looking to put WP7 on any tablet devices in future - not a great leap up in form factor from the large screen handsets on show in London yesterday - Woodman said the software giant is concentrating on phones for the foreseeable future.

"I oversee all the product management and no one's come to me and said we need to make a tablet," said Woodman. "Maybe in the future they'll task us but first we have to go and earn the biggest market opportunity in respect of consumers... I have my work cut out for me to compete in the phone space."

"You're not going to hear from me this coming holiday about tablets at all," he added.

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