Where Are the New Windows Phone 7 Devices?

Verizon Wireless (s vz) will reportedly sell the HTC Trophy as its first smartphone running Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform (s msft). The carrier has made no official announcement yet, but leaked images of the Trophy running on Verizon’s 3G network have recently appeared on the PPC Geeks forum, and such pics coincide with previously announced plans that Verizon would offer the Trophy in early 2011. The Trophy would follow the HTC Arrive, coming soon to Sprint (s s), as the second CDMA handset that uses Windows Phone 7. But both these new handsets are more of the same: simply minor adjustments to devices already launched on GSM networks in the past four months. Where are the fresh “new” Windows Phone 7 devices?

I had hoped the answer to that very question would come from the Mobile World Congress event earlier this month, but instead of new product announcements to help build momentum for the platform, conference attendees received a high-level update on the operating system in a keynote address from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The next big opportunity for new Microsoft-powered handsets then is next month’s CTIA event in Orlando, Fla., but I’m wondering if that show too, will come and go with no significant hardware news. Although Windows Phone 7 devices only arrived four months ago, most of them — even the upcoming handsets for Sprint and Verizon customers — are based on components that were cutting edge about a year ago and generally look the same.

Take, for example, the specifications of the Trophy. While it hasn’t been announced as a Verizon handset yet, the device launched overseas last year and the hardware details are available directly from HTC and reviews from the time of its original launch: a Qualcomm (s qcom) QSD8250 Snapdragon 1 GHz CPU, 3.8-inch capacitive touchscreen running at 800×480 resolution, 5-megapixel camera with auto focus, and 8 GB of internal storage. In other words, aside from the operating system, the phone capabilities are extremely similar to those found in my Google Nexus One (s goog) handset, a phone I bought nearly 14 months ago.

While HTC, Samsung, LG and Dell (s dell) have all created the first wave of Windows Phone 7 handsets, and will surely continue building them, the initial batch are generally similar and somewhat uninspiring. Indeed, all of the designs meet the bare minimum hardware requirements specified by Microsoft and strive no further. That causes me to wonder even more about the recently announced partnership between Microsoft and Nokia (s nok). While many, including myself, long felt that Nokia’s strategy to use the Symbian platform was too much in flux and too slow to mature, Microsoft may have been specifically looking for a hardware partner with fresh, new designs.

To be sure, it’s going to take time for Nokia to design and build smartphones using Microsoft’s platform. Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO and a former Microsoft executive, has said the company hopes to have its first Windows Phone 7 device out before the end of 2011. That leaves plenty of time and opportunity for Microsoft’s other partners to offer new handsets that push the envelope beyond this first wave. But will they do so? Given that Microsoft has a huge new partner that’s allowed to customize the Windows Phone 7 user interface — something no other partner currently has — we may see very few, if any, new handsets from other hardware makers. It may be too difficult to differentiate devices from peers, especially when only one of those peers can modify the user experience.

This is a potential challenge for Microsoft I hadn’t thought of until recently: The company is spending money to attract third-party developers, but how is it enticing its hardware vendors to advance the platform? With preferential treatment given to Nokia, companies such as HTC, Samsung, LG and Dell have little incentive to compete against the world’s largest handset manufacturer. And if that’s the case, consumers could find that Windows Phone 7 offerings for 2011 are much the same as those from 2010, even as handsets on other platforms become dual-core powerhouses that double as home set-top boxes for HDTVs.

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