Windows Phone 7 debuts to heavyweight backing, high hurdles

Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer, already under pressure because of past mobile failures such as the Kin, today unveiled the Windows Phone 7 operating system and announced nine Windows Phones from four suppliers (Samsung, LG, HTC and Dell).

“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a looong time,” Ballmer smiled, acknowledging WP7’s long gestation period.

But Microsoft’s WP7 ship is tacking against two strong crosswinds: the 80-percent-plus market share that Apple and Android hold in current smartphone sales, and the hurdle of the spectacular failure of the two Microsoft Kin phones earlier this year. The company will reportedly spend $400 million to promote Windows Phone 7.

The first wave

The first Windows Phone 7 model will be Samsung Focus, which will go on sale at AT&T on Nov. 8 for $199.99. The Focus will feature Samsung’s 4-inch super bright AMOLED screen, a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, and a 5-megapixel camera. Coming in a few weeks will be the HTC Surround and the LG Quantum, both priced at $199.99, with 1GHz Snapdragon processors and 16GB built in. The multimedia Surround sports a 3.5-inch LCD, slide-up Dolby stereo speakers, and a kickstand. The Quantum is equipped with a three-line slide down horizontal QWERTY keyboard.

While no official announcement was made, leaked reports indicate the HTC HD7 will be the first T-Mobile Windows Phone, to be introduced sometime later this year.

Why Windows Phone 7?

Ballmer stressed two main themes for WP7: “always delightful,” meaning a pretty user interface, and “wonderfully mine,” meaning a wide range of interface customization options.

Microsoft’s best sales pitch is WP7’s fresh interface approach. Instead of iOS or Android’s rigid grid of application icons, WP7 uses brightly colored square and oblong tiles, either one or two across the screen, and some clever icon animation to showcase usage “hubs” – a People hub for contacts, a Music & Video hub (essentially an expanded Zune), a Games Hub with Xbox Live, and a Marketplace hub for apps. In addition, WP7 will include Outlook Mobile, Bing Search, Calendar, Explorer and a new iteration of Mobile Office, which will include cellphone-friendly versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, with which you can both read imported files and create new ones. Messaging, phone and e-mail tiles display a large numerical indicator of waiting activity within that tile. The consistent san-serif text in all menus and apps – e-mail is reformatted using WP7’s default font – is large, clean and highly readable, even from a distance. Demos indicate iPhone-like smooth scrolling and intuitive design.

Consumer-friendly, business-savvy

WP7 development head Joe Belfiore demonstrated several tricks designed to minimize clicks. One of the most impressive was the OneNote and Outlook integration; an e-mail with an invite includes possible scheduling conflicts and direct links to an Outlook calendar to shift appointments around.

Also impressive is the direct camera key, which wakes up the phone and places it immediately in camera mode to quickly capture fast moving events.

Since the first phones are coming from AT&T, carrier president Ralph De la Vega demonstrated mobile U-Verse. U-Verse subscribers will be able to download shows right to the phone for viewing. Since U-Verse isn’t available nationwide, non-U-Verse subscribers can subscribe to a monthly service to access programs.

We’ll have a more hands-on report on the devices later today.

The app question

Belfiore noted “hundreds of thousands” of the Silverlight-based SDKs have been downloaded, and there will be “thousands” of WP7 apps available by the time the phones arrive. Belfiore demonstrated apps for eBay and IMDb, along with The Sims 3 in the gaming area.

Can it stack up?

In many ways, the evolution of WP7 mirrors the iPhone operating system. This first generation of phones are all GSM (Ballmer did not mention when CDMA versions would be coming). While not addressed (there was no Q&A), WP7 reportedly won’t initially support Flash or multi-tasking, and won’t include Wi-Fi hotspots, obvious points of differentiation with iPhone that were not mentioned, and so were conspicuous by their absence.

But the question isn’t how sweet some of WP7’s functionality is or how slick the initial devices will be. Microsoft’s problem is perception – of being a business phone maker entering a consumer field already dominated by two well-known brands, with well-established and healthy consumer constituencies. The company will spend a reported $400 million in marketing WP7, aided ably by the company’s hardware and carrier partners, to sail the WP7 ship safely into harbor.

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