Windows Phone 7 finally launches--do developers care?

Eight months after Microsoft first announced plans to scrap the much-maligned Windows Mobile 6.5 and reinvent its mobile identity with the new Windows Phone 7 operating system, on Monday the software giant formally unveiled the first nine WP7 smartphones (from manufacturing partners Dell, HTC, LG and Samsung), with CEO Steve Ballmer promising to deliver "a different kind of phone." Eight months is a lifetime in the go-go mobile segment, and it seems like Microsoft crammed a lifetime of engineering effort into WP7's development--weeks ago, Windows Phone Engineering corporate vice president Terry Myerson said WP7 is the most thoroughly tested mobile platform that Microsoft has ever released, subjected to nearly 10,000 devices running automated tests daily as well as more than 500,000 hours of active self-hosting use, more than 3.5 million hours of stress test passes and 8.5 million hours of fully automated test passes.

The first looks at Windows Phone 7 make it plain that Microsoft gave everything it had to create a differentiated, user-friendly experience, highlighted by a Start screen touting active and configurable interface elements (or "tiles") that update with real-time information like social media alerts. In addition, WP7 integrates signature offerings from other Microsoft platforms, including Xbox, Zune, Office and Bing. Microsoft is also paying lip service to the first wave of third-party Windows Phone 7 apps, originating from partners including Electronic Arts--underscoring the integration central to the WP7 experience, all EA games optimized for the new OS will be Xbox LIVE-enabled. "By now we hope it's clear that your apps and games are central to the value we're offering end users with Windows Phone 7," writes Microsoft's senior director of mobile services and developer product management Todd Brix on the Windows Phone Developer Blog. "We're taking every opportunity to demonstrate how the applications you are generating extend the new Windows Phone 7 experience. For example, starting today we are profiling Windows Phone 7 apps and games on the Windows Phone Blog and other social networks and properties, starting with Bejeweled LIVE, an Xbox LIVE title, from PopCap Games. Check daily to see what's new between now and launch."

Microsoft has actively courted the mobile developer community to build Windows Phone 7 apps since the OS was still little more than a gleam in its eye, even offering financial incentives to stir developer interest in the new platform. Many developers have chosen to embrace a wait-and-see attitude--now that the wait is finally over, we'll see what happens. But the evidence doesn't indicate that developers are champing at the bit to build Windows Phone 7 apps: Only 28 percent of devs express strong interest in writing for the platform according to a recent survey conducted by mobile software platform provider Appcelerator and research firm IDC. A whopping 91 percent of developer respondents say they are "very interested" in creating apps for the iPhone, however, followed by Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad tablet (89 percent), Google's Android (82 percent) and Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry (34 percent). Windows Phone 7 may well turn out to be revolutionary, but innovation alone may not be enough to convince developers to allocate their limited time, creativity and resources to another OS. (Many devs in the wait-and-see camp may be waiting to see how WP7 fares with consumers before they'll give it any serious thought.)

But given that Microsoft had hoped to offer Windows Phone versions of popular iPhone games at launch, WP7's grand unveiling must be judged as something of a disappointment. After all, there are few if any iPhone titles more popular than Rovio Mobile's blockbuster Angry Birds, and over the weekend it became clear the game isn't coming to Windows Phone 7 anytime soon. A posting on the Microsoft website erroneously suggested otherwise, but Rovio moved to set the record straight: "We have NOT committed to doing a Windows Phone 7 version," Rovio tweeted Sunday. "Microsoft put the Angry Birds icon on their site without our permission." Microsoft quickly issued a statement accepting blame for the mix-up: "It appears information was mistakenly posted to Microsoft's website, and has been removed," the company said. A subsequent tweet clarified Rovio's position, hinting the developer hasn't entirely ruled out Angry Birds for Windows Phone: "We didn't get mad, just wanted to set the record straight," the firm explained. "And we haven't said we wouldn't do WP7." In other words, add Rovio to the wait-and-see ranks--assuming Microsoft didn't ruffle its feathers too much. -Jason