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Microsoft Starts Over, Announces Credible iPhone Competitor

Of all the companies competing in the cellphone industry, it is perhaps more than just a little poetic that Microsoft (s msft) should be the first to offer a truly compelling product to rival Apple’s iPhone.

I never thought I’d write that sentence.

Yesterday at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Steve Ballmer unveiled Microsoft’s newest phone platform, awkwardly-titled Windows Phone 7 Series.

Quick rundown; it’s based on Windows CE kernel 6.0 (the latest WinMo is 5.2) is finger-friendly everywhere with swiping, pinching and multitouch, sports a virtual keyboard and offers music and video playback via the awesome Zune UI. Oh, and, there’s not a stylus in sight.

And here’s the thing; Windows Phone 7 Series actually looks good. I mean, it looks really good, even though it’s clearly unfinished.

As such, the UI is a bit slow, finger touches are sometimes ignored, and it’s clear that the fancy animations and transitions are something of a drag on the processor. Microsoft engineer Joe Belfiore said of the new OS;

“What we’re doing is building and delivering a different kind of phone […] a smart design that puts the user at the center of their experience. We’re moving beyond the phone as a PC-like item that moves beyond separate applications and brings together the key things that are important to people […] like pictures, and music and video, and productivity.

Users have one simple place to go and access their web services, access the functionality in their applications, and access the data on their phone. Those are the fundamental ideas behind this new user experience.”

On the matter of its fresh new UI, Windows maven Paul Thurrott wrote in his (even more awkwardly titled) Windows Phone 7 Series Preview Part I;

This is an important difference between the iPhone and Windows Phone. When you use an iPhone, you go into an app, which takes over the device. If you want to do something else, you must leave the first app, navigate around the home screens, find the new app, and launch that. Rinse, repeat. (And the iPhone’s lack of a Back button let alone sophisticated multitasking is, of course, still a huge issue.)

After years of heavy daily iPhone use, I can’t honestly say the lack of a back button or “sophisticated multitasking” have ever been a “huge issue.” I had those things in Windows Mobile phones years ago but never used those devices anywhere near as much as I use my iPhone. Maybe Thurrott is right – though personally, I just don’t think it’s the issue he has long made it out to be.

Credit Where Credit is Due

But this shouldn’t be about taking cheap shots at the competition. Microsoft deserves credit. The new Windows Phone 7 Series is a compelling glimpse at – maybe – a bright future for a platform everyone thought was dead. The UI is stylish and looks really fun to use. It even makes the iPhone’s OS look more 30 years old than three.

We’re just not accustomed to Microsoft doing bold, exciting and compelling work. Maybe that’s the result of having the wind knocked out of its sails by the EU Commission, or because it tends to focus more on business solutions than it does personal consumer-facing solutions. Whatever the reason, it hasn’t done anything this exciting and new in a long time.

There’s still opportunity for it to mess-up. If Microsoft has any sense at all, and wants to claw-back some of the marketshare it has lost since 2007, it’ll need to exercise far greater control over OEM’s (enforcing strict minimum specifications on Windows Phone handsets) and Carriers, too (insisting end users be free to install software updates – traditionally, Carriers required users buy a whole new handset should they want to upgrade).

Apple’s iPhone success owes much to its closed ecosystem; Apple designs and builds its own hardware which is coupled with custom-software. Updates are available for everyone everywhere and carriers have no say in the matter. Even third-party apps are vetted by Apple in order to ensure they don’t tarnish the universal iPhone ‘experience’.

Microsoft has never demonstrated it cared about user experience in Windows Mobile. Now, it seems obvious it’s adopting a new attitude.

So here’s the big picture; Microsoft has produced a powerful new mobile OS in Windows Phone 7 Series. It offers all the same basic functionality as the iPhone. There’s an app store. The Zune media platform. System-wide social network integration. It will likely be cheaper than an iPhone and Carrier-agnostic from day one. It won’t need iTunes or the iTunes Store, either (though I’m not suggesting the Windows Marketplace or Zune Social is any better).

Windows Phone 7 Series Marketplace (Image by Engadget)

I look at today’s current best-competitor for the iPhone and it’s clearly an Android-based handset such as the Nexus One. But let’s be brutally honest – Android is a mobile OS for Geeks. Android’s huge gain in market share probably owes more to the fact that it’s free than to any other consideration.

Meanwhile, the iPhone’s remarkable success proves that consumers are willing – even during a recession – to pay real money for a great product if everything is done right.

Microsoft might have finally figured this out. And ain’t it fun to imagine that, a year or so from now, the most credible competition to the iPhone may come not from Android or RIM, but from the company we all stopped caring about years ago. Somehow, that’s just perfect. And I can’t wait to see how Apple responds.

29 Responses to “Microsoft Starts Over, Announces Credible iPhone Competitor”

  1. This comment is not about MS, but sounds like someone here might be able to shed light on my questions. I am looking forward to an iphone! especially Questions:
    1] When will next generation iphone come out? (is it worth waiting till then?)
    2] How will it be improved from the current iphone?
    3] Will it be verizon friendly?

  2. How long I wonder before MS brings out a tablet with an OS that looks like this, just like Apple brought out a tablet that looks like the iPhone OS. I think the industry is getting very very interesting.

  3. I forgot to add that there is one thing Microsoft can never do and offer a 360 solution, in the iphone, PC, and the cloud and home that all works and knits together perfectly and effortlessly but ultimately reliable. Microsoft just can’t do that.

    • Umm…

      – Windows 7
      – Windows Phone 7 Series
      – XBox 360
      – Mediaroom (for set-top boxes)
      – XBox Live
      – Windows Live (incl. Hotmail and Messenger)
      – Live Mesh
      – Bing
      – MSN
      – Zune (both software and service)
      – Zune Marketplace

      Debate all you will whether each of those offerings are best-of-breed (everyone has their own tastes), but certainly Microsoft is the closest of the big 3 (Apple, Google, Microsoft) of delivering what you described.

  4. Ah, all competition is good competition and it will help keep Apple on its toes and innovating. I am all for it, there is something for everyone! Me, I will stick with my trusty Apple – thanks

  5. Wait for the Blue Screen of Death to appear on the 7 series :)The transitions are so processor intensive. And wait, how could you define me in 4 boxes. I don’t wanna know everything about everyone, I just want to make a call or just check the stocks. The concept is neat, indeed! if implemented well, which I doubt. But it sure does bring out another player in the market.

    Talk about players, whats wrong with these Wholesale App consortium of the 20 leading mobile operators. One thing is for sure, Apple has done everything right as everyone seems to follow them now!

  6. It doesn’t work with Macs. Unbelievable, with the gains Apple has been making. Just go take a peek in a coffee shop or an airport waiting area and see how many Macs are out there. But it’s pretty anyway, and the Xbox hooks will probably get them a decent amount of people. But kind of disingenuous to deny making a Zune phone, which this clearly is.

    • Let’s see…

      You press that big blue button that says “Phone”… See it? Okay, then, like magic, up pops a keypad with big numbers on it. You dial a number and put the phone next to your ear. You’ll hear it ring… wait for someone to pick up and just talk.

      See how easy that was. ;-)

  7. A day late and a dolla short.

    Too bad MSFT finally have something that according to the author of this post is a “credible iPhone competitor” – three years later!

    I like how everyone from Palm, to MSFT declared the iPhone DOA when it was introduced three years ago. And now guess what? Everyone and their brother has something that looks and smells like an iPhone variant. Imagine.

    Here’s a safe prediction: iPhone v 4.0 (probably released this Summer) will be yet another new pinnacle for Palm, Google, MSFT, Nokia, blah, blah, blah to try and catch up to – in a few more years.

  8. Synthmeister

    This thing is still a long ways off and the iPad, iPhone OS 4.0 and the next gen iPhone will be out several months before it sees the light of day. Those three items will suck the oxygen out of the room for the next year as far as mindshare and mobile app development and peripherals. I expect to see some absolutely killer peripherals and apps for the iPad.

  9. This is a good thing. Strong competition just make for better products.

    Also if the rumors that Apple was looking to switch from Google to Bing as default search engine in the iPhone were true. I think Apple should re-think that.

  10. I just can’t believe so many people say they like the interface. I find it absolutely horrible. And why on earth do people think that this, of all the phone OS’s available, will be a serious iPhone competitor?
    I just can’t believe it. It’s all Android love for the Apple haters, but the minute Microsoft comes out with vague promises still 6 months away they act like the world has been saved. The way I see it it will just lure people away from Android, meaning less potential for developers for all platforms, just fragmentation.

    • I’m with you on this one JG.

      Maybe I’m just “not seeing it” – but this interface is repulsive. Maybe I’m just used to seeing everything have a polished, lickable eye-candy finish, but the Win Phone 7 Series looks like something I would expect from low-budget ad spaces on a website or something.

    • Seconded. Does anyone else think that the Zune interface is trying to be a hip indie film? “This phone was directed by Wes Anderson!” I’m sure that appeals to a certain segment of the market, but I just don’t care for it. Nor do I find the interface itself to be intuitive – I spent a few minutes messing around with a Zune HD at Best Buy a few weeks ago, just for fun, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it do what I wanted. I’ve never had that problem with my wife’s iPhone.

  11. I really like the zune hd interface and I think will find a good home in a smart phone. However, I am more interested in seeing the hardware that windows phone 7 will run on.

  12. Joe Mamma

    It wasn’t too long ago that I was using a BlackJack running Windows 5.something. What an everyday nightmare that was. If MS’s new mobileOS really can work as billed (though that Zune-style-oversized-words-going-over-the-screen-thing is annoying) then this competition will be great for Apple and consumers. I doubt they will take market share from the iPhone. The only complaints I ever hear from iPhone owners, including me, is about AT&T. Just don’t see current iPhone owners saying, “I can’t wait to ditch this iPhone to get a Windows Phone…” So the competition will be for new customers.

  13. After Gates comment “You know, I’m a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard – in other words a netbook – will be the mainstream on that.” it is funny that they adopted the virtual keyboard that noone is going to want. Wonder if they will try to compete in the ipad market and end up adopting the virtual keyboard there too.