Microsoft remakes its mobile image with Windows Phone 7

BARCELONA, Spain--Left in the dust by rivals like Apple and Google, Microsoft reinvented its mobile identity Monday with the introduction of Windows Phone 7 Series, announced in front of a capacity crowd here at the 2010 Mobile World Congress event. While the clunky new brand name may not inspire much optimism, the decision to retire Windows Mobile is emblematic of the fresh start the new operating system represents: "There is no question in our minds that we needed and wanted to do some things that were out of the box and clearly differentiated from our past and--hopefully you will agree--clearly differentiated from other things going on in the market," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Based on the demonstration that made up the bulk of the press event, Windows Phone 7 Series definitely heralds a dramatic break from previous incarnations of Windows Mobile--the question is whether Microsoft and its manufacturer partners will be able to deliver on the new platform's obvious technological promise and consumer appeal.

Built essentially from scratch over the last year and a half, Windows Phone 7 follows just four months after the much-maligned Windows Mobile 6.5--according to Microsoft, devices running the OS will deliver an experience distinguished by a more elegant user interface design as well as close integration with applications and the web. "We saw an opportunity for change," said Windows Phone vice president Joe Belfiore. "We didn't see the UIs updating to keep up with all the new capabilities in today's phones. Our focus in on the end user and the things that matter to them."

All Windows 7 handsets will feature dynamically updated "live tiles" on the Start screen, showing real-time content directly--users can also create their own tiles for their personal contacts and social networking friends. In addition, Windows Phone 7 Series devices will ship with a dedicated hardware button providing one-click access to Bing search services, complete with intent-specific results delivering results from the web or based on local information.

Windows Phone 7 also boasts a series of "hubs" integrating related content from the web, applications and services. The hubs include Games, which transports Microsoft's Xbox Live gaming platform to mobile devices, as well as Music + Video, which integrates the company's Zune media player to offer content from the user's PC as well as online music services and built-in FM radio. "Every Windows 7 phone will be a Zune," Belfiore said. The other hubs: People (which brings together relevant content based on live feeds from social networks and photos), Pictures (which simplifies photo and video sharing and uploads, integrating with user photos on the web and PC), Office (which includes access to Office, OneNote and SharePoint Workspace tools) and Marketplace (which connects to Microsoft's Windows Marketplace for Mobile app store).

There are many questions, of course. Microsoft offered little information on how Windows Phone 7 will impact its existing developer partners, or--no less signifcant--how it will attract new developers into the fold. Nor did it address whether existing Windows Mobile applications will run over Windows Phone 7 Series devices, although Ballmer confirmed Microsoft will continue to support WinMo 6.5 for years to come. Microsoft adds that developer questions and answers will arrive at its MIX event, taking place in Las Vegas next month, so stay tuned.

As for the biggest question--will Windows Phone 7 resurrect Microsoft's mobile fortunes?--it's far too soon to call. But reaction here at Mobile World Congress is ovrerwhelmingly positive: Based on the demo, Windows Phone 7 offers a user experience altogether different from previous Windows smartphones, but also doesn't ape iPhone or Android. Still, as many pundits have pointed out, consumers don't buy operating systems--they buy hardware, so the onus now shifts to Microsoft's manufacturing partners to supply enticing, cutting-edge designs. One thing does seem certain, however: Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft's last chance in mobile. The company will not get another opportunity to finally get it right. -Jason