As Microsoft prepares to launch Windows Phone 7, Jenny Williams asks if Microsoft's new mobile operating system will be good for business
Microsoft has hosted a mock funeral procession for its smartphone rivals as it prepares for the launch of its mobile operating system Windows Phone 7, which is due to be available "holiday 2010". Microsoft employees mourned the passing of the iPhone from Apple and Research in Motion's Blackberry in a publicity stunt to mark the release of Windows Phone 7 to manufacture at the beginning of September.
Microsoft's previous attempts to dominate the mobile phone OS market failed, unlike Apple's iOS, Google Android and Nokia's Symbian, because it approached phone handsets as "smaller versions of the PC", according to Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum.
Apple's iOS changed what users wanted from mobile operating systems. "Post-iPhone, expectations of platforms changed," says Cripps. "The user interface around [Microsoft] devices has been more complex than it needed to be. With complex options that needed configuration, they had not thought through how people would use small-screen devices," he continues.
Microsoft neglected to make its smartphones operate as a phone rather than a small desktop computer. "Microsoft's mistake was to think that desktop as a metaphor for an operating system would carry over into mobile phones," adds Cripps.
"If you look at how they've worked around it, they've gradually been simplifying but have now arrived at a place where they have to do a complete refresh and that's what Windows Phone 7 is all about."
But has Microsoft got it right this time?
It is confident its OS will be capable of competing with mobile OS market leaders. LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, HTC, Dell, Toshiba and Asus have already signed up to build smartphones operating with Windows Phone 7. Microsoft is hailing Windows Phone 7 to be the "biggest launch this year" and the "next phase of smartphones", as Oded Ran, head of consumer marketing for Windows Phone, UK, at Microsoft, told Computer Weekly last month.
But, according to Dale Vile, analyst at Freeform Dynamics, even with the benefit of hindsight, Microsoft has its work cut out in light of competition from its market-leading rivals.
"If Microsoft had got its act together three or four years ago, it would've been in a much stronger position. Now it's fighting it out with tough competitors with a stronghold in the market. RIM is top of the heap by a long way," says Vile.
However, he says, Windows Phone 7 is the first future-proof offering from Microsoft in the smartphone space. The OS is important for the software giant's consumer-based business and for its use in a business context. "The two are linked because we're seeing a lot of smartphone usage in the business environment based on personal devices," Vile says.
Microsoft admits WP7 is aimed predominately at the consumer market. But Rikke Rasmussen, business marketing for Microsoft UK, says, "While the phone is designed for the consumer market, its features and functionality are also aligned with the requirements of enterprises."
Windows Phone 7 supports Microsoft Exchange, providing push mail, address book and sync. "Filtering and management of work and personal e-mail, calendar and contacts is much more efficient through an intuitive Outlook Mobile experience. The integrated infrastructure also means increased collaboration by extending existing Sharepoint Server deployment to mobile users," says Rasmussen.
"The other big enterprise feature is Mobile Office, including Microsoft Word, Excel, Onenote and Powerpoint. It brings together notes and documents through the Office hub so people can view, edit and comment with Office Mobile, and search and sync from Sharepoint Servers. The high resolution of these applications makes it particularly useful," adds Rasmussen.
Microsoft claims its mobile OS can reduce enterprise IT costs, attracting attention from the business community. "With Windows Phone 7, enterprises will save licensing, hardware and operational costs by enabling mobile access to Microsoft Exchange Server without the use of middleware," says Rasmussen.
But experts have identified areas for improvement. According to analyst firm Directions on Microsoft at the time of launch, Windows Phone 7 will fail to work with Microsoft System Centre Configuration Manager, while corporate applications will have to be deployed through the Windows Phone Marketplace.
"IT departments should prepare to support Phone 7 as devices come into the enterprise but might not be able to standardise on them, especially if they rely on custom mobile applications," says Directions on Microsoft, in a report.
A spokesman for Microsoft says the company provides better document sharing and collaboration via integration with Exchange Server and Sharepoint server while further announcements specifically related to business applications will be made later this year.
While Microsoft is holding a funeral for its rivals, analysts have predicted the demise of Windows Phone 7 before it has even launched.
Along with application deployment issues, Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza says Microsoft's licensing costs may force mobile phone manufacturers to turn to its competition because of a lack of customisation. "Microsoft has become restrictive about what OEM phone manufacturers can do," she says.
Gartner is particularly sceptical about Windows Phone 7. The research firm predicts Windows Phone OS sales to end-users will increase from 15 million to 34.5 million by 2014. But open-source platforms Symbian and Android will dominate the mobile OS market with anticipated OS sales of 264 million and 259 million respectively in four years' time.
"The market is consolidating on three or four platforms - and Microsoft is not one of them," says Cozza. "Microsoft will have to address the consumer market to keep its position within enterprise."
Microsoft is late to join this OS competition but it has still managed to be highly successful despite following the next big thing. The Apple Mac was already six years old when the Windows 3.0 GUI came out, yet Windows is the dominant desktop platform.
It has also made a name for itself in the games market with the xBox brand, which was launched a seven years after rival Sony's Playstation. So chances are, Microsoft will eventually make a success of its Windows phone operating system, and when it does, it could once again dominate a market.
HTML 5.0 vs Silverlight
As Microsoft launches Internet Explorer 9 beta with HTML 5.0, it is unclear if Windows Phone 7 will support HTML 5 on IE Mobile.
Brad Becker, director of product management at Microsoft, said in a blog post, "There's been a lot of discussion lately around web standards and HTML 5 in particular. People have been asking us how Silverlight [the application development platform] fits into a future world where the
He says Microsoft has invested in HTML, which is adopting standards from plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight. "We believe HTML 5 will become ubiquitous just like HTML 4.01 is today.
"But user expectations are rising even faster - there are always more problems we can solve and further possibilities needing to be unlocked through innovation," Becker adds.
Becker says Microsoft remains committed to using Silverlight to extend the web by enabling scenarios that HTML fails to cover.
Microsoft's checklist for Windows Phone 7
Tony Cripps, principal analyst for Ovum, gives five 'must-have' features for Microsoft's new phone operating system.
- Look and feel – "Microsoft previously had an engineering-led focus. From the screenshots [of Windows Phone 7] it's clear they've matched the engineering side with a design-led approach, thought through by graphic designers. They've probably achieved this well."
- Service integration – "Microsoft must follow the lead set by Apple and Google and provide service integration with the device, making it possible and simple for consumers to access and download applications and content relevant to them."
- Application store – "There needs to be an application store integrated with the platform - a cloud-side app store and store front - where consumers can download stuff. This can act as a controlled distribution channel for app developers and content companies."
- Lots of content – "The amount of content, apps and services available to end-users is important. Instead of thousands of rubbishy apps, people are looking to download relevant content and for integration with web services they use every day."
- Simplicity – "You need simplicity in integration with the device and user interface on the operating system, such as, simplified menus and minimal clicks to get at what you want."
"The overall user experience, and what will bring people back, is a combination of all these components."