Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 - Smartphone OS face-off

microsoft windows phone 7What it is: Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7 at the Mobile World Congress trade show earlier this year in Barcelona, Spain. The effort is widely regarded as the software giant's last legitimate stab at mobile relevance; the introduction of Windows Phone followed just four months after the much-criticized Windows Mobile 6.5, and promises an experience distinguished by a more user-friendly design as well as close integration with applications and the Web.

Chief among the new features in Windows Phone 7 is 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.

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).

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.

Watch it in action: Microsoft in February provided this video of Windows Phone:

Microsoft also provides a range of additional Windows Phone images and video at its website.

What we know: "Microsoft made a very bold decision to start fresh," said Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart. "The core user interface I think is very strong."

"I'm really excited about Windows Phone," said IDC analyst Ramon Llamas. "The tile approach allows for a lot of flexibility. ... It's much different from what you've seen in the past."

Further, with its Zune digital marketplace, Microsoft's Windows Phone also introduces a potential competitor to Apple's iTunes. "It appears Windows Phone may be the first platform to offer rich purchase and rent capabilities for content since the iPhone," Greengart said. "They've got a decent content story to tell. Whether they can tell it is a different story."

Finally, ABI's Michael Morgan noted that Microsoft is looking to retain tight control over the platform's hardware, thereby potentially leaving little chance for Windows Phone 7 device makers to differentiate.

"Microsoft is really going to have control over the UI," he said--a notable difference from Google's Android approach.

What we don't know: ABI's Morgan expressed deep concern over whether Microsoft will find the industry support for Windows Phone it needs to be successful. "I'm starting to wonder if they're facing it with the right attitude," Morgan said. "They're taking an, ‘If we build it, they will come,' attitude--and I'm not sure that's true."

Morgan said Microsoft, with its strict hardware requirements and licensing fees, has left little reason for device vendors to build Windows Phone gadgets--especially considering platforms including Android and MeeGo are free to use and modify.

Further, Morgan said Microsoft traditionally has had trouble staying on the cutting edge of software. "I haven't seen Microsoft show me that they can keep up with the software versions. ... By the time they get it right it's going to be last year's model."

Another open question is whether Microsoft will be able to drag its former Windows Mobile partners--including large enterprise users--into its new Windows Phone 7 game. "How deeply ... does Microsoft intend to go into the enterprise?" asked Current Analysis' Greengart.

In a recent post to the company's blog, Microsoft's Paul Bryan addressed that very concern, arguing that "more than 90 percent of our target customers for Windows Phone use their smartphone for business purposes and 61 percent use their phones equally or more for business than personal use."

Added Bryan: "We understand that migrating from Windows Mobile 6.1 or 6.5 to Windows Phone 7 will take effort. However, many customers we have spoken with thus far have told us that these are steps they are willing to take in order to achieve a new level of usability and productivity."

Acknowledged Greengart: "Microsoft is going to have to get developers to support this platform. Microsoft has a strong history of doing that."

But perhaps the most pressing question is whether Microsoft can commit to and follow through with Windows Phone--an issue made all the more pressing following its swift desertion of Kin.

"Things are a little confused there [at Microsoft] at the moment," said ABI's Morgan, noting the company's recent executive shuffling.

The bottom line: Windows Phone 7 "does have a lot of potential. But they're getting into this late in the game, and they need to follow through this time," IDC's Llamas said.

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 - Smartphone OS face-off