Microsoft takes on iPhone with WinPhone 7

OvumThe much anticipated launch of Windows Mobile 7 – to be officially named Windows Phone OS 7.0 – at Mobile World Congress marks a sea change in Microsoft’s strategy towards the mobile phone market, with the Redmond software giant finally flexing its service integration muscles and focusing its efforts on creating a cutting-edge user experience, seemingly at the expense of its OEM and operator partners.

Microsoft could easily have followed its established path towards mobile devices – a furrow ploughed since the initial version of Pocket PC Phone Edition came into existence nine years ago – and continued to make a worthwhile business out of it. However, it has decided that now is the time for revolution rather than the simple evolution through continual tweaking that has characterized its approach to date, and which led to considerable criticism of the in-market Windows Mobile 6.5.

Gone is the shrunk-down PC user interface (UI) that has made Windows devices both instantly recognizable and, for many potential users, equally off-putting for many years. In its place is a graphically rich, flashy (although Adobe’s Flash is not currently part of its makeup) and user-friendly UI reminiscent of recent Zune media players.

This resemblance is also no doubt responsible for long-standing rumors of a “Zune phone”. But while Microsoft categorically says that there is no such thing, Windows Phone OS 7.0’s affinity to Zune devices does not stop at superficial appearances. As it has already done with its Xbox 360 games console, future mobile phones based on Microsoft software will feature integration with the Zune media store. Moreover, they will also integrate with at least some aspects of the Xbox 360 experience.

There’s also out-of-the-box access to the Windows Marketplace for Mobile application store, continued close support for Microsoft Office, social media and contacts integration and cross-platform photo management – all of which are surfaced via the UI in the form of easy to access content and application “hubs”. Microsoft’s rivals in the vertically-integrated device-software-services space may finally have something to be concerned about once devices reach the market in time for Christmas.

Core competence
It’s not so much that Microsoft has finally begun to fill the gaps in its offering compared with key rivals such as Apple and Google; it’s more that the company is finally making its core competence – namely software development and expertise – work for it in the form of a leverageable and scalable basis for multi-channel content and services.

In effect, what we’re seeing is Microsoft finally embracing the many benefits – in terms of user experience, developer experience and go-to-market strategy – of the managed device platform (MDP) approach. It’s certainly the response from Microsoft that Ovum has been waiting for and we’re promised more to come. (Watch out for tighter integration between multiple connected devices and cloud services too.)

Does this also mean that Microsoft is following Apple in imposing a more proscriptive view of its platform(s) on its partners? The answer appears to be yes.

Microsoft told Ovum that customization of the UI in Windows Phone OS 7.0 will be extremely limited, seemingly in order to guarantee application and service compatibility between devices from different OEMs. This contrasts with its fairly neutral stance around Windows Mobile 6-6.5, where deep customization of the user experience by its OEM partners has become commonplace (e.g. HTC’s Sense).

While the practical benefits of doing so are numerous (and indeed the successful execution of the MDP approach is largely dictated by it), this approach may not find favor with confirmed Windows Phone OS 7.0 licensees, several of which have invested considerable time and money in adapting previous versions of Windows Mobile to the demands of the consumer market, notably in the development of complete UI replacements (e.g. HTC’s Sense).

Reducing the scope for OEMs to differentiate on user experience could yet lead to some defections from the core group of Windows Phone 7.0 licensees that Microsoft has stripped back to HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, LG, HP, Dell, Garmin-Asus and Qualcomm. Then again, few will complain if Microsoft’s phone revolution helps them sell more units.