Microsoft Starts Over, Announces Credible iPhone Competitor

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Of all the companies competing in the cellphone industry, it is perhaps more than just a little poetic that Microsoft 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.

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