Windows Phone 7. Too little, too late?

It seems incredible, but it was only three and a half years ago that Apple released the first version of the iPhone. In such a short time the device has shot to the top of the market, becoming a household name in the process, and has revolutionised the way people use their mobile phones. Third-party mobile applications had been around for several years, but the purely application-based approach of the iPhone blew the market wide open, introducing ‘apps’ to the masses, and heavily influencing all future Smartphone operating system design.

Little over a year later, Google’s much anticipated smartphone operating system Android was finally released. With it came Android Market, which was instantly praised for offering something Apple’s App Store did not: freedom. Often championed by Android users, the Android Market gives developers a free reign, in contrast to Apple’s heavy handed approach which requires all apps to be inspected before release. As many expected, the attractive price point for Android, and the wider range of devices which support it, has made it one of the iPhone’s greatest competitors.

Only a little late to the party, last month saw the release of Windows Phone 7, exactly two years to the day after Google released Android. Labelled the successor to the Windows Mobile platform, Phone 7 actually bears little resemblance to any previous Microsoft release. In fact, it doesn’t much look like any other Smartphone at all. The start screen is comprised of several customisable ‘hubs’, which can be links to applications or dynamic features such as notes, weather, or media items. It really does look different, and that may well be what saves it.

The problem for Microsoft is this: between the iPhone, Android, and the increasingly popular BlackBerry, the market is already very busy. Those who want a smartphone have had three years to jump on the bandwagon, and while the life of a phone is considered to be at most two years, the majority of users are satisfied with their original choice, and will simply choose to upgrade to a newer model. In order to win these customers over, Microsoft will have to pull something special out of the bag. For three years Apple have used television advertising to brilliant effect. Their simple ads demonstrate the iPhone and its capabilities perfectly, and Microsoft would be well advised to take note.

So far Windows Phone 7 has been well received. The new user interface has been praised for being well-designed, and the virtual keyboard also feels intuitive. There are similarities to the original iPhone in terms of missing features, with cut, copy and paste being good examples, as well as multi-tasking and Flash support, although these are all expected to be added in the future.

At this point you might be wondering; does Windows Phone 7 actually bring anything new to the
table? Unsurprisingly, Microsoft has decided to capitalise on the success of the Xbox by introducing the Xbox LIVE service to mobile gaming. So far over 50 games have been announced for this service, which will initially adopt a turn-based approach while Microsoft works on the big draw: real-time multiplayer between Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox 360. This is bound to be an attractive feature for gaming enthusiasts, if implemented properly.

Elsewhere, Microsoft is placing a big emphasis on search, as part of their relatively new Bing brand. Every Windows Phone 7 device will have a dedicated search button, which will either launch the Bing application, or a new in-app search function, for any application which chooses to take advantage of this feature. It remains to be seen how this will be implemented, but it’s an idea that has huge potential.

Sadly, Microsoft have decided to follow Apple’s footsteps rather than Google’s when it comes to their Marketplace policy; they will be enforcing content restrictions on third-party applications. Perhaps this is unsurprising, since this content policy also applied to their Windows Mobile platform, but changing it would have been a big step towards winning customers back from Apple. One final dent in their armour may be their hard-line on hardware; Windows Phone 7 has a very high minimum requirements specification, including a 5 megapixel camera. This is sure to bump up handset price, which may further deter customers.

Popularity of any one type of smartphone over another is difficult to predict. Certainly Google will be very pleased with the recent Android sales data, putting it at a 20% market share, and Apple’s iPhone was successful from day one. But where will Microsoft fit in after all this time? Will customers find comfort in an established home computer brand name, or have they left it too late? Whatever the answer, one thing is sure: with contract and handset prices falling, more competition can only be a good thing for consumers.

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