With Sony Ericsson's inaugural Windows Mobile device, the Xperia X1, set to be launched in the coming days, the handset maker has revealed that it had to convince Microsoft to embrace plans to make the Windows interface more user-friendly.
Sony Ericsson hopes the Microsoft device, first announced at the Mobile World Congress event in February, will appeal to "fast living" professional users who want to be able to use their device for work and play.
To take the device beyond Windows' traditional business roots, Sony Ericsson has added a user-friendly front end to the operating system (OS), in the form of nine customisable panel icons. The panels enable users to run applications straight off the desktop, rather than digging through the Windows menu structure to find and boot them, and the phone maker has also launched a software-development kit (SDK) to encourage developers to create more and more panels.
Keisuke Kakoi, head of product and application planning in Sony Ericsson's convergence unit, said Microsoft's initial response to Sony Ericsson's plan to skin the OS with panels was not a positive one: "I still remember, in the very beginning phase, we... disclosed our panel concept to Microsoft and [the] first reaction from Microsoft was: 'No, no, no. Please stay Microsoft way; Windows way.' But we showed the panel application, then Microsoft top management suddenly changed [to]: 'Yes, OK, you should do that.'"
"They change their mind quickly. So I think this is one very simple example. We... now very much closely work with Microsoft, they very much… understand our strategy with the panel concept; we are getting lots of help with them as well," said Kakoi.
The X1 runs the Opera mobile web browser as default, despite also having Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Sony Ericsson has high hopes for the Xperia: that it will not just appeal to 'prosumers' but could even tempt enterprises away from the wares of BlackBerry-maker RIM, which has also been adding in a multimedia-entertainment edge to its offerings.
Kakoi added: "As you can imagine, our sister companies, like Sony Pictures, Sony BMG — everyone has the office in west coast [of the US] — we can work easily [with them], of course. Unfortunately RIM cannot do that."
"But also we are open to work with RIM. They are approaching us as well because they have the Windows Mobile BlackBerry client, so it's vice versa. You can see BlackBerry and its size as direct [competition] but also we can potentially work together. So this is an open-platform product really," said Kakoi.
Kakoi works at Sony Ericsson's Silicon Valley office. He said the company wanted to have a base in the heart of web-development country, where there are "so many creative companies". He added that the company is working with Apple in "the connectivity area".
Asked why Sony Ericsson has chosen to offer a Windows Mobile phone now, company chief technology officer Mats Lindoff said: "The adventure started in 2001. [In] those days we had four, five percent market share. Today we have eight, nine — I think we had almost 10 in Q4 — and, of course, when you grow, you can also grow the opportunity to develop — you have more resources, you are reaching out to more markets."
"And we also, of course, want to focus on the US, where Windows Mobile is much stronger than Symbian, and that's the only business phone we've done in the past. So, for me, it's a natural development of the company and I also think that, [as for] operating systems, we are not religious," said Lindoff.
Lindoff added that he wasn't ruling out the possibility of the Xperia being a Symbian Foundation product in the future.
Asked why the Xperia X1 has been in development for such an apparently long period, Magnus J Andersson, senior product manager of the X1, said: "We've done this in a record time. I remember we talked about this [internally]: 'Is this the right time to go out at Mobile World Congress? It's quite early in the development phase, should we wait?'"
"That's what we normally do on development projects: we announce them when they're nearly finished. But we said: 'No, we've kept this very well as a secret and we have something pretty unique. We have something great to tell the audience, so let's just do it.'"
Kakoi added that Sony Ericsson has spent more time than usual developing the X1 as it's a "new platform for us". Since February, he added, the handset maker has been working on performance-tuning and also customisation for each market the phone will be sold in.
"It's not that it's taking us very long; we actually announced it very early… We are still delivering and performing on our original schedule that we had that day in Barcelona [at Mobile World Congress]," Kakoi noted.