SEATTLE / NEW YORK / SINGAPORE: Microsoft Corp’s last-ditch attempt to reclaim its prominence in the smartphone market, the Windows Phone 7 (WP7) platform, won favorable early reviews, but it may come too late to claw back customers from Apple Inc and Google Inc.
The world’s largest software company, along with network carriers and handset makers, is planning to spend more than $100 million on marketing the phones, which analysts said could compete with Apple’s iPhone, but that may be a struggle.
“We are the first to admit that Microsoft is fighting for third place, not first or even second, at this point; but we believe this is a key step toward rebuilding confidence in their ability to innovate in mobile,” Wells Fargo analyst Jason Maynard said in a research note.
“This isn’t going to move the market share needle in the short term.”
Windows Phone 7’s features
Windows Phone 7 marks a shift for Microsoft from the enterprise market to the consumer.
Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said during a New York launch on Monday that the company was emphasising personalisation and customisation with WP7, the first significant update to its mobile operating system.
“They have phones with slide-out keyboards, larger screens, high definition outlets — all features that the iPhone does not have,” said Ross Rubin, a consumer electronics analyst at retail research firm NPD Group. “That should help Microsoft’s competitive position. There will always be a segment of customers that seek out the newest devices.”
Windows Phone 7 will allow users to tap into the firm’s Zune music player platform and access mobile versions of Xbox 360 games. Smartphones powered by it will run email from various services, not just Microsoft’s Hotmail, integrate calendars, contacts and social networks and allow for documents to be viewed, edited and shared using Microsoft Office. Users will be able to incorporate updates from Facebook will into a user’s contacts. A large variety of apps are in development and some apps were demonstrated too.
The phones that were shown at the various press conferences for the phone’s launch across the world were using on the Snapdragon processor made by Qualcomm Inc and represent Microsoft’s best attempt yet to introduce live connections with its other products and the Web.
Game maker Electronic Arts Inc said it will introduce a wave of games for the new phone software this holiday season. That should boost the phone’s popularity among gamers, especially the 25 million subscribers to Microsoft’s Xbox Live gaming network.
The handsets are much closer in look and feel to Apple’s iPhone than earlier Windows phones, with colorful touch-screens and “live tiles” on the starting screen for quick access to email, the Web, music and exclusively, games on the Xbox system.
“The user interface is quite innovative because it takes advantage of those precious few seconds when eyes hit the glass and actually gives you something useful,” said Al Hilwa at research firm IDC. “It will probably be copied by other platforms over time.”
British actor and writer Stephen Fry, an outspoken fan of Apple products, praised the phones on stage at a launch event in London.
“When I got one of these (phones) my first feeling was it’s fun to play with. I have felt enormous pleasure using this phone,” said Fry, who was invited, but not paid, to speak at the event. “Yes, I love Apple, but I’m not a monotheist. I want biodiversity in this market and all of us that love it should welcome that too.”
A big push
Microsoft said the launch will be backed by heavy television advertising in the run-up to the holiday shopping season, as it looks to vault itself back into the market.
“This is Microsoft’s last chance to be a major player in the smartphone market,” said analyst Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates. “Microsoft will be required to undertake a massive consumer education campaign if it wants to stand a chance of differentiating itself from iPhone and Android, which have far greater market presence.”
Microsoft did not give any sales forecasts for the new phones.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint. They are not going to change their position today or in the next month,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at research firm Gartner. “But they’ve established themselves as a credible player.”
The line-up of nine new phones from Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, LG Electronics Inc, HTC Corp and Dell Inc will start to appear in October in Asia and Europe, followed by the United States in November on AT&T Inc’s network.
Samsung and LG Electronics of South Korea along with Taiwan’s HTC simultaneously unveiled in Singapore a range of mobile devices that will operate on WP7, underscoring the region’s crucial role in the industry.
Natasha Kwan, Microsoft’s general manager for mobile communications business in the Asia-Pacific, said that “Asia is the fastest growing” market and was “very, very important” to the future of the sector.
But Microsoft is optimistic the company’s new mobile platform will herald a shift in fortunes in this part of the world.
“I would say today we are probably in a humbled position,” said Kwan, “but we are so confident and optimistic with all the support that we think that the only way to go is up.”
WP7 is seen by analysts as a make-or-break gamble for Microsoft, whose Windows platform has struggled against Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android in the smartphone segment.
The new phones represent Microsoft’s last chance to catch up in the smartphone market with rivals who overtook it in the past few years.
“I’ve been looking forward to this day for some time,” said Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, showing off the nine phone models at a launch event in New York.
Ballmer admitted his company “missed a generation” with its recent unpopular phone offerings, said the new phones would eventually be available from 60 mobile operators in 30 countries.
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