Microsoft and its 'Windows Phone' ambitions

Having been universally criticised for over-hyping its Vista operating system (OS), Microsoft would appear to be taking a less bullish approach as to how the latest version of its mobile phone OS might succeed.

Accepting that few consumers are aware that it even has an OS for mobile phones, Microsoft executives are keen to stress that the company's biggest challenge will be promoting the product--now rebranded as Windows Phone--as a viable alternative to the successful Nokia, Apple and Blackberry alternatives.

Acknowledging that it is lagging in third place, at best, in the worldwide smartphone OS market, Microsoft claims it will be able to claw itself into second position within the next 12 months in Europe.

This bold claim, put forward by Microsoft's EMEA director of mobile communications business, Alfredo Patron, is based upon the Windows Phone OS capturing customers as they migrate from feature phones to smartphones. "These users want a richer experience, and we believe a Windows Phone product will provide more choice in terms of price points, handsets and not being locked into a particular operator."

Patron also believes that the Windows Phone OS will have appeal to users in emerging markets such as Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "We've put in place partnerships with many of the major handset vendors that will be particularly appealing to these local markets where people want choice."

These are easy words, and the targeting of emerging markets with lower-cost smartphones is already well underway from other vendors. Also, if Microsoft has trouble with the visibility of its mobile OS offering in established markets, trying to break into emerging markets where its mobile OS will be unheard of could be especially challenging.

Taking a more pragmatic approach, John Mangleaars, Microsoft's EMEA VP of consumer and online activities, believes its can gain market share by having great handsets (which it seems to be doing with the Snapdragon-based Toshiba TG01), having an open OS that enables operators to tailor the services, and building the Windows Phone brand using heavyweight advertising and its own retail outlets, "and we've also got to persuade Windows developers to design their apps for the Windows Mobile platform. And all this will mean a lot of hard work," admits Mangleaars.

Not dismissing the honest intent, the release of its latest mobile OS (revision 6.5) will not see Microsoft catch or overhaul today's leading players. This revamp has been seen as little more than polishing the rough edges of the previous Windows Mobile OS, and the rebranding to Windows Phone doesn't suddenly make the OS any better.

But, the unanswered question is whether Window Phone rev 7 will make a difference. The current speculation puts the announcement of the software in time for Mobile World Congress next February with a commercial release in 12 months time.

Where will the smartphone offerings from iPhone, Blackberry, Nokia and Palm be by this timeframe? None will roll over and let the Windows Phone grab second place in the European smartphone OS race, for sure.

Albeit that smartphones make up only a small percentage of the overall shipment volumes of mobile phones, the market is growing fast and has become the high-profile battleground where reputations and fortunes are being won and lost. -Paul