Microsoft 'more than capable' of competing with iPhone, Androids

"All pieces are in place" says analyst who backs Redmond to win back market share in competitive smartphone space with its Windows Phone 7 OS, but he urges Microsoft to now bring these together in a "high-performance package".
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

The upcoming slew of Windows Phone 7-based smartphones will help Microsoft claw back market share from current industry darlings, namely, Apple's iPhones and Google's Android OS-based handsets. However, the degree of its success will depend on how well it brings all the parts together into a "stable, high performance package", according to a market analyst.

Tim Renowden, analyst for devices and platforms at Ovum, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the Windows Phone 7 operating system (OS) combines Microsoft's suite of consumer-focused online services, which include its Windows Marketplace app store, location services and Bing search engine, with support for key Office applications such as OneNote, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and SharePoint.

Additionally, Redmond last month announced it will be integrating its Xbox Live game ecosystem to work with the Windows Phone OS, touted to be a boost to its app strategy and allow the company to tap its existing base of console gamers. With this integration, gamers will be able to see their Gamerscore, earn achievements and play games that tie into the Xbox Live online service.

With these components in mind, Renowden reckons the success of Windows Phone is now in the hands of its maker.

"All of the ingredients are present but Windows Phone 7's success depends on whether Microsoft can bring these together in a stable, high performance package," the analyst said.

The software giant had earlier outlined its Windows Phone roadmap, saying that the first set of smartphones running its revamped OS will hit markets by end-2010.

Asked which market segment will welcome Windows-powered phones, Renowden said enterprise customers, particularly IT managers, will likely look forward to its launch.

He added that despite demand from business users to bring iPhones or Android-powered handsets into the enterprise environment, these devices are still lagging behind Research in Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry in terms of device security and manageability. Thus, the analyst noted that IT managers would favor Windows-powered smartphones which look to combine consumer appeal with "strong enterprise functionality".

"Windows-based phones will probably take some enterprise market share from RIM but the relatively high minimum specification requirements [stipulated by Microsoft for the OS] will keep the cost of handsets higher than BlackBerrys," stated Renowden, who added that RIM has had "great success" with its cheaper BlackBerry Curve models.

Focusing on consistency
In a separate interview with ZDNet Asia, Microsoft Asia's general manager for mobile communications business, Natasha Kwan, said its software engineers had designed three "major changes" for the revamped OS to better compete in the market.

First, in terms of hardware, Redmond had defined a set of basic requirements for phonemakers to adhere to. This is to ensure a consistent environment for developers and to reduce the number of partner manufacturers it would need to support, Kwan explained.

Its mobile team is also working more closely with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to write much more of the hardware and software drivers need for the mobile OS. Lastly, Microsoft subjected its phones not only to a compatibility test but also a series of quality tests to ensure the devices will meet customers' high standards, she said.

In fact, Terry Myerson, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Window's Phone engineering, wrote in a blog post that Windows Phone 7 is the company's most thoroughly tested mobile platform to date. According to Myerson, his team has put the OS through daily automated tests on nearly 10,000 devices with over 3.5 million hours of stress-test passes and 8.5 million hours of fully automated test passes.

The company also released its OS source codes to OEM partners at the start of September so they can complete their work on customizations and hardware in preparation for a year-end holiday release.

Furthermore, Redmond has stipulated that its OEM partners leave the standardized user interface (UI), which the company had created, untouched, she noted. Currently, phonemakers such as HTC and Sony Ericsson differentiate their handset offerings by installing a customized UI layer over their phones' existing Android OS.

With this new requirement, Kwan said phonemakers are encouraged to work with Microsoft to create customized "out-of-the-box, value-added services in the form of a 'live tile'" that will sit on its UI.

"In addition, OEMs can use our application development platform to build customized apps with their differentiated UI, which can then be pinned to tiles," she noted.

Winning developers back
Elaborating on Microsoft's developer strategy, Kwan said the company's approach for Windows Phone 7 is "unique". By having a single set of consistent technologies and tools, which can be used to target a wide range of devices, the Internet and Web services, the Windows mobile OS provides a "visually distinct design system and integrated experience different from what other software companies offer today", she added.

"Windows Phone 7 has a structured, yet open and transparent, marketplace storefront opportunity that gives developers a simple method to reach and connect with every user," she elaborated.

Existing Microsoft developers that are already writing applications on top of its Silverlight or XNA frameworks will benefit as their learning curve to code for the new mobile platform will be gentler, said Edmund Quek, regional manager for Microsoft Asia-Pacific's next Web department. Silverlight is the toolset for writing desktop apps while XNA is used to develop games for Microsoft's Xbox console.

Quek, who deals directly with the company's developer community in the region, told ZDNet Asia in an interview that in terms of software development, Windows Phone is in a good position because its existing base of desktop, enterprise and console developers are ready to port their expertise to the mobile platform.

"Applications created for Windows Phone 7 in Silverlight or XNA will now be able to integrate effectively with PCs and Xbox," he said.

Developers that have been working on the Windows Phone 7 platform appear to share Microsoft's enthusiasm for its new mobile platform.

Origo Games Adam McClard, for example, told ZDNet Asia his team is "very hyped" about the cross compatibility of devices that can straddle across handsets, the Xbox 360 console and PCs.

He noted that using Silverlight and XNA puts his company on a "different development standard" and changes the way his team would normally approach mobile games.

Echoing McClard's sentiments, Nenin Ananbanchachai, managing director of Thai game developer Extend Interactive, said in an e-mail: "When you create an application for [Apple's] iOS, you get an app for that platform and not for its Mac PCs. If you want a PC version, you will have to write it almost from scratch. The same goes for Google's Android platform as well."

"In comparison, Windows Phone 7 allows developers the flexibility to tweak the phone applications, which are written on Silverlight or XNA, into a PC or a game console version. This is possible as they share the same code structures and can easily work together," he said.

Asked how confident he is in the Windows Marketplace to distribute his software, Ananbanchachai said he is "very confident" because the app market is easy to use and will help the company deliver its apps to a "wide range of potential customers".

Another developer, Sangar Annadorai, pointed out that the new platform is great for people like him to gain visibility. The Singapore-based student from Nanyang Technological University said in his e-mail: "I am pretty confident of distributing my apps on Windows Marketplace. As it is a spanking new platform, there is plenty of opportunity to grow for existing and new apps."

Last Thursday, Microsoft revealed that a number of third-party apps will be made available in conjunction with the release of Windows Phone 7 this holiday season. Companies such as Netflix, Twitter, OpenTable, Flixster and Travelocity are said to have confirmed plans for their apps--which will support the new platform version--to populate the Windows Marketplace then.

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