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Windows: Back in the mobile race?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:30 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010

Just how much is riding on Windows Phone 7? It is after all just the latest mobile operating system from a company which is currently an also-ran in the smartphone business.

Steve Ballmer


So why is Microsoft making such a big deal of it, with glitzy launches in London and New York? Last week the chief executive Steve Ballmer was in London to give a lecture about cloud computing to students at the London School of Economics.

But the only two Microsoft products that really seemed to get the ebullient Mr B bouncing were Windows Phone 7 and Xbox Kinect, the new motion-capture gaming platform.

These two, it seemed, provided a picture of where the company was heading in a bright new always-on connected future, with products that would excite and delight consumers.

When you look at Microsoft's latest set of accounts it's hard to see why so much is being made of mobile and gaming. After all the Entertainment and Devices division which includes these and a ragbag of other products still looks like an afterthought compared to the behemoth that is Windows. It had its best-ever year making $679m in profits, but that compares with over $12bn from the Windows division.

And, though Microsoft doesn't provide a detailed breakdown, it looks like most of those profits came from Xbox, with mobile revenue falling and the Microsoft-branded Kin phone proving a costly failure.

What's more Windows Phone 7 arrives in a ferociously competitive smartphone market where its rivals are already galloping away into the distance.

According to Gartner, Symbian is still in the lead with 41% of the market, followed by RIM, the Blackberry maker, on 18%, Google's Android on 17% and Apple on 14%. Windows, meanwhile is on just 5%.

So, I ask again: why is Microsoft trumpeting the latest variant of a mobile operating system as its biggest launch since the desktop Windows 7?

First, because executives are genuinely excited about the new system, and, having had a brief play with one of the launch phones, I can understand why. After years of horribly complex mobile menus that tried to mimic the desktop, Microsoft now appears to have created something that is actually both simpler and more attractive than what is out there at the moment.

You don't pick up the phone and struggle to work out where you go next - big bold rectangles lead the way. Developers are already making use of this canvas to build apps that combine the simplicity of mobile with the functionality of the desktop - the Tesco app, for instance, allows you to roam the store with greater ease than on other smartphones.

The other reason this is so important is that Microsoft has realised that all the action, all the innovation, in the world of communications technology has now moved to the mobile. It's where the next billion consumers are most likely to get their first taste of the internet; it's where new ideas like app stores or location-based services or augmented reality are being tried out.

So, while Windows and Office and the server business will no doubt continue to churn out billions of dollars for years to come, Microsoft will look increasingly irrelevant if it is not at least a player in the mobile market.

And that is why Steve Ballmer is bouncing around telling us how Windows Phone 7 is going to blow our collective socks off. Microsoft's rivals in the smartphone business are way ahead, but Mr Ballmer believes there is plenty of time to catch up.

He will have a quite a battle to win over the millions who've already bought into the Android or iPhone or Blackberry versions of the mobile world.

But there are millions more who are just beginning to think about using a phone for more than to make calls, and there is now another option for them to choose.

Windows is never going to achieve the dominance on mobile phones that it still has on the desktop - and thank goodness for that, will be the cry from those whose believe that monopolies stifle innovation. But Microsoft is now back in the game, and that has got to be good for mobile consumers.

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Update 1631: What a coup de theatre! At the end of a rather lacklustre launch event in London, Microsoft introduced a surprise guest to extol the virtues of Windows Phone 7. Onto the stage walked the actor, writer and polymath Stephen Fry, notable to date for his adoration of Apple's products and his disdain for just about everything that has a Windows logo on it.

Stephen Fry

The Fry Thunderbolt

He proceeded to explain how his mind had been changed when he was sent some of the new handsets: "My first feeling was that it was fun to play with". Mr Fry explained, contrasting it with earlier phones that had been drab and grey and all about function rather than form. "When I heard Mr Ballmer use the word 'delight', I thought what joy there is in heaven when a sinner repenteth."

And what joy there will be in Seattle to hear those words. Stephen Fry, who is a genuine fanatic about smartphones, was keen to stress that he had not been paid for his appearance. But for Microsoft his endorsement will be of huge value - after all a few unkind words from him have done untold damage to other new phones in the past.


  • Comment number 1.

    So it doesn't have flash then Rory? Whoever it was from Microsoft seemed to dodge answering that question! Also not sure I like the idea of all the Microsoft software ie Zune, Bing, Xbox live. Not that I have a problem with these things, I just got the impression that they're copying the Apple philosophy of locking everything down and controlling content - not a good plan. If people want something locked down and stylish they get an iPhone, if people want something open but perhaps a little more clunky then they go for Android. Who's going to get the Microsoft phone if it's both locked down and ugly?

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "So, I ask again: why is Microsoft trumpeting the latest variant of a mobile operating system as its biggest launch since the desktop Windows 7?"

    the Free Software Foundation's position on this question may be of interest:

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm not sure about the "titles that are too wide to fit on the screen", but otherwise it's great to see Microsoft innovate. Until very recently, they've lagged massively behind on any sort of innovation. Finally, they seem to be pushing new ideas rather than just catching up with the rest of the market.

  • Comment number 6.

    jizzlingtons is about right I think. It looks well ugly and short on functionality outside microsoft branded networking. I can get a cheap n nasty android phone for that, like a desire.
    No game-changer, this. MS are going to bomb. Again.

  • Comment number 7.

    Personally, as a current iPhone user I thought the Win7 phone looked great. The interface looked fantastic, the usability looked great and the features (Zune, Xbox Live) look exciting. I'm not fussed about the people hub and mapping but Zune looks much better than iTunes. I am curious to see how it syncs up with my PC.

    I'm not worried about Flash just now as I have heard MS are working with Adobe on a Win Phone 7 version (yes it will need its own version and this will take time). The capacity to support Silverlight interests me from a developer perspective.

    The thought behind the process of taking photos quickly really impressed me. As a parent I also experience the frustration of having to go through several steps to take a picture/video on my iPhone which usually results in me missing the shot.

    I look forward to hearing what Sat-Nav applications will be available this year.

    It seems to me that MS has done their homework and I wish them well with this. I will be keeping my eye on the HTC 7 Pro.

  • Comment number 8.

    Microsoft have to come up with something that is significantly better.

    Having recently abandoned Nokia's retarded system for the relative consistency of Apple. It remains to be seen if Apple will open a little of their "closed garden" in response to the threat ex MS - I doubt it.

    However, if I were Nokia I would be running very scared indeed and pushing to get Android, Meego, MSWM7 and Symbian in place on handsets as selectable O/S very fast. Only in this way will the true winner emerge.

    Sad to say I put my money on Samsung and HTC not Nokia.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    As an Android user I have to say that it looks very good. It's great to see innovation (linking contacts in a better way than HTC sense/friendstream does). It also looked very smooth in its operation. Not often I say this but well done Microsoft.

  • Comment number 11.

    It looks like a poundshop iPhone. Those big buttons are a waste of hi-res screen.

    Reminds me of the big button phones you'd buy your grandma.

    Are the screens customisable? XBox doesn't mean a thing to me.

    I would be embarrassed to pull that thing out of my pocket at a meeting, in the pub, anywhere.

    Ballmer needs an early pension.


  • Comment number 12.

    Sick at the thought of all the years and money I have wasted on MS products.

    I was a huge MS fanboi (writing programs, building and repairing PCs), but since switching to Apple just over 2 years ago, I just feel ill when I think about how badly I was treated by MS and its dreadful products. Computing with Apple is reliable, fast, efficient, intuitive and a pleasure. I will never trust MS again with a moment of my time or a penny of my money.

    So fed up of Stephen Fry being proffered as the arbiter of taste: he's on the tv, radio, twitter, apps, in books, etc thrusting his views/life/wit/opinions on everyone all of the time. Enough. Save us from the relentlessness of Stephen Fry. Give space to other people and ideas.

  • Comment number 13.

    Chipesh #11.

    "Those big buttons are a waste of hi-res screen.
    Reminds me of the big button phones you'd buy your grandma."

    tut-tut, that's ageist.

    there are plenty of mature and elderly people who'd like to be able to use up-to-date technologies but struggle with the tiny buttons on mobiles/remote controls/etc.

    also, scaling s/ware buttons to any size desired isn't exactly difficult. LOL

    agree though that Ballmer ought to be retired.

  • Comment number 14.

    I have the Desire running Froyo, I got the update only a couple of weeks ago as it's an Orange Branded phone. I have to say that although I like Android, having used Windows Mobile 6.1/6.5 before it, it's far from perfect. Froyo is not fully optimised for the Desire and because the OS is open I have to wait for my Network company to add all the bloatware they can before I get an update. In this case I think Microsoft themselves will be issuing updates to devices that support it, which can only be a good thing.

    Another problem with Android is that the quality of apps are very poor, simply because there are a variation of devices with different specs targeting seperate markets so the apps are not optimised for one particular device. The vast number of apps mean nothing if the quality is poor or the app itself is of no use.

    As you might have guessed by now, I am waiting for a good phone to hit the UK market and I'll buy it because am getting rather tired of Android. Also, I have managed to get a hold of the Zune HD which uses the same Metro UI as WP7, it's very simple and easy to navigate, also very smooth.

    Finally, isn't Stephen Fry an apple fanboy? What's he doing on stage for Microsoft event, or is he just trying to get some attention?

  • Comment number 15.

    I think the major problem with the Windows Phone 7 OS is that it resembles a 'dumbphone' OS. It looks too limited and sparse.

    The price for being different could just be that people don't warm to it because it doesn't resemble Android or iOS.

  • Comment number 16.

    Sorry Microsoft: too little, too late. Just the same as the browser wars. You took your eye off the mobile platform as an emerging market and better platforms/products quickly filled it.

    Although, unlike the browser wars competitors, you will not be able to throw your FUD and marketing weight against Goliath's such as Apple, Symbian and most importantly, Google.

    Google's approach to embrace the open platform of Android (Linux Kernel), seems to allow for the rapid development required in this quickly changing market.

    You only have to look at the adoption rates of Android and Chrome (browsers) to see where the future lies.....

    Sorry Microsoft, prepare for another Zune (hey, remember that)!

  • Comment number 17.

    Innovation! Why is that the Apple scrolling screen I see? Is that the Apple tilt and rotate effect? It has apps and a touch screen? Are you sure it's so new? Come on Rory this is just blatant product launch publicity for a very mediocre product that does little else but emulate those that have gone before.

  • Comment number 18.

    Stephen Fry ought to make up his mind about proprietary software and Microsoft.

    Expressing different views depending on who's stage your standing on and who is paying for lunch doesn't add credence to your opinions.


  • Comment number 19.

    "I like our strategy, I like it a lot."

    Steve Ballmer, 2007.

    So, his strategy is to arrive 3 years late to the party, with an iOS clone and expects people to flock to buy it?

    This is so poor it's beyond believable. I mean, seriously, no copy/paste? I remember Apple being lambasted 2 years ago before they implemented it, and now M$ have the audacity to release a "new" OS that has so many missing features.

    May Steve Ballmer stay in charge until the bitter end!

  • Comment number 20.

    I love the posts by the Apple Fanbois, they do make me smile.

    I haven't upgraded my phone for a good couple of years as I didn't want an iPhone as I don't buy into the Apple ethology of giving people a product and then locking it down so much that you need to use theior software for everything. I nearly went for the Android, but couldn't justify it enough to actually go out and change my phone.

    I will have a look at the WP7 and see when it is released whether it is worth having. The one thing I will not do is say whether I think it is a good and bad thing before I have seen it, unlike all the fanbois above. :)

  • Comment number 21.


    "I didn't want an iPhone as I don't buy into the Apple ethology of giving people a product and then locking it down so much that you need to use theior software for everything."

    So you're looking at a Microsoft product ?

    Rory Cellan-Jones said "and I notice there are big Microsoft brands at the centre of all this" , didn't you notice ?

    If you wan't software freedom then look anywhere other than in the direction of Microsoft.

  • Comment number 22.


    "I haven't upgraded my phone for a good couple of years as I didn't want an iPhone as I don't buy into the Apple ethology of giving people a product and then locking it down so much that you need to use theior software for everything"

    Funniest misguided post of the week! Well done!

  • Comment number 23.

    Wow the Apple fanboys really have got their knickers in a twist over this phone. I wonder if it's the fact that they don't like the phone or they just don't like Microsoft? As most people haven't even had the chance to play with the phone yet the first reason would be ignorance where as the second reason would be prejudice. Either way its a real shame. And yes, I own an iPhone.

    In regards to the actual phone and MS's intentions I think it's all very interesting. Yes they are coming to the party late but look at the console market. They arrived late to that party as well and everyone said no-one could beat Sony and the Playstation but they have done very well. I wouldn't write them off yet.

    MS's big advantage (IMO) is the fact that it uses the .Net framework. This means that millions of developers out there already have the skills needed to build for this device. The open source nature of Android has really helped rocket development and I think MS will benefit from this. Sadly this is something the iPhone even now does not have as it is still highly specialized and can be difficult to work with in this sense.

    Personally I fancy the HD 7 Pro phone as it seems to be a good mix of business and fun and I think that is where MS has got it right. Interesting times for MS i think.

  • Comment number 24.

    Microsoft appear to be making big noises about WP7 but from a developer's perspective though it offers some interesting prospects yet it disappoints at the same time. The .NET environment will appeal to a wide developer & game producing audience but what a developer can actually do is somewhat restricted. On the one hand Microsoft are promoting cloud computing where the developer can quickly notch up a reasonably good looking WP7 app to for example manage some data source sitting in the cloud and display its contents. On the other a large crop of productive apps from Windows Mobile 6.x and older will not be portable onto WP7. This is because not only is native development completely disallowed on WP7, the facility to access system features like telephony, address book and the likes are either non-existent or unsuitable. It will be interesting to see whether Microsoft will evolve the WP7 developer model to make it more powerful and less restrictive. Then they may find a few more developers like myself jumping on the WP7 bandwagon.

  • Comment number 25.

    @SuperG - agreed. Don't the various (non-MS) fanbois usually come out with the line 'no one is forcing you to buy it...'? :)
    I think the winning innovation here is less is more. Less distractions on the main screen leads to quick access to the things that are important and which are used a lot; and with the tiles showing the current status etc it means you can determine what is important from a single glance. Hats off to Microsoft for not following the crowd on this.
    The proof, of course, is in the using... not too long now.
    Of course, it really doesn't matter whether the OS is open source or not, whether it locks you down or allows you to do what you like, or whether it allows developers free reign or ties them in. What does matter is whether the general public (who probably don't know what open source is, don't care what is locked down, and don't want to concern themselves over what developers can do) think it's cool and the next must-have gadget. Given attention span and contract length I would say that the release has come at the right time to take advantage of people changing their phones. Expect a lot of marketting soon.

  • Comment number 26.

    Too late For Microsoft. Nice try though.

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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