Windows Phone 7: Microsoft’s Mobile Do or Die

Yesterday, Microsoft wowed Barcelona with its brand new mobile phone operating system: Windows Phone 7. Now that the dust has settled at CTIA, let’s assess just how big the impact of this announcement will be.

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Let’s face it: the last time anyone was excited about Windows Mobile was back when a computer that could fit in your “pocket” seemed even more compact than one that could fit in your “palm.” Since then, Microsoft has thrown an increasingly large slew of numbers onto the OS, with seemingly no other changes to accompany the transition that took us from “2000” to “6.5” with about six seemingly arbitrary stops in between.

For a while, this prototypical Microsoft behavior was all well and good; the only competition was Palm, which was slowly splitting itself into a number of irrelevant companies. That all changed, however, on June 29, 2007 — when the first iPhone went on sale. Suddenly, an OS that hadn’t been seriously updated in half a decade wasn’t going to cut it anymore, no matter how many finger-friendly shells HTC and Samsung could throw on top. With Apple dominating the consumer segment, RIM taking the business customers, and Symbian going for the haughty European market (and let’s not forget about Android and WebOS), that didn’t leave much of the smartphone pie for Microsoft.

Say what you will about Microsoft, but one thing is certain: they aren’t stupid. They know an 8.8% share of the global smartphone market is not going to cut it. They also know that long term, Joe and Jane consumer aren’t going to need top-of-the-line PCs running $500 copies of Windows 7 Ultra Everything Forever while throwing down biannual upgrades for Microsoft Office. No, the world is moving to the cloud, and we’re taking our smart phones and netbooks and game consoles there with us. It’s clear that Microsoft recognizes this, and they’ve already made some valiant attempts moving in that direction through the Xbox, Zune, versions of Windows specifically for netbooks, and their not-bad Live suite of online applications.

Microsoft appears to have taken the best of these devices and rolled them into its brand new mobile operating system –Windows Phone 7. By bundling all their best features into one new device, Microsoft is putting its best foot forward in its latest foray into convenient computing. Borrowing a tactic from Palm’s WebOS and Motorola’s Blur, Windows Phone integrates your online friends deep into the core of its functionality. Instead of burdening you with thousands of spamming Twitter and Facebook “friends,” Microsoft’s focus on buddies you’ve made through Xbox and Zune Live puts a more personal face on the approach.

Speaking of Zune, it’s clear that this is the device Microsoft leaned on most heavily when imagining its new phone. Expanding their award-winning music player to a wide range of cell phones is MS’s best bet at competing against the iTunes juggernaut, while the clean design of the Zune software itself translates nicely into the minimalist theme running throughout all of Phone 7. Furthermore, it’s this design that is the most exciting part of the new phone.

Instead of just aping the iPhone like every other mobile OS released in the past 3 years, Microsoft has proven that it can still innovate when it counts through their new contextual based UI. Hopefully, their integration of the phone with both their online Live suite and their offline desktop programs is similarly forward thinking. If so, Microsoft may very well have a winner on its hands. By the Microsoft MIX expo in March, we’ll see just how big that win really is.

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