Microsoft's Windows phones hit the market

The software maker, looking to get back into the cell phone conversation, is launching a big marketing push Tuesday touting the arrival of phones powered by Windows Mobile 6.5.

After months of talking about Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft is announcing on Tuesday that the first crop of phones to carry the Windows Phone brand are ready to hit the market.

A host of new phones running the new operating system are expected to debut between now and the holidays, with many being announced later on Tuesday. AT&T has already announced two Windows Mobile 6.5-based phones --the Pure and the HTC Tilt 2. In all, Microsoft has said to expect more than 30 phones running the OS by year's end.

Microsoft

With the new operating system, Microsoft hopes to make the case that the devices are not only worthy phones, but also the best option for those who want to take their Windows world with them. The operating system itself features Adobe Flash support, an improved browser, and menus that are easier to navigate with a finger, as opposed to a stylus. Perhaps more interesting are two new services that come along with Windows.

The first, the Windows Marketplace, is Microsoft's answer to the iPhone's App Store. It's somewhat interesting that Windows Mobile has long had more programs than the iPhone--none of which involved approval from Microsoft. But Microsoft has found itself in the position of having to insert itself as middleman to match Apple's approach.

Users will still be able to buy and download applications directly from developers, but Microsoft apparently felt it had to mimic the iPhone's App Store in order to help connect less technically savvy users with the thousands of programs that already exist for its phones.

The second service, My Phone, has been in testing for a while now. Just debuting, though, is a paid "Find My Phone" feature that costs $5 per use (although you pay only when you need the service, unlike Apple's iPhone-finding service, which requires a $99-per-year MobileMe subscription). The service can be used to locate a missing phone, make it ring (even if it is set to vibrate) or even remotely lock or wipe the device.

The big question, though, is if any of these changes are enough to get Microsoft back into serious consideration in a smartphone market that not only includes the iPhone, but also devices running the Android, Palm WebOS, and BlackBerry operating systems.

That challenge--to gain both market share and developer attention--was highlighted by this past weekend's Code Camp held at Silicon Valley's Foothill College. According to one attendee, a session on Windows Mobile 6.5 attracted just six people--three of them from Microsoft--while the iPhone session filled a large lecture hall.

Even some of Microsoft's partners have moved on, with Motorola and Palm among the more high-profile companies to focus their attention on other operating systems.

That said, one recent report suggests it's too soon to count Microsoft out. Market researcher iSuppli projects that Windows Mobile will manage to triple its volume by 2013 and reclaim the No. 2 operating system spot worldwide.

"Windows Mobile is facing a host of challenges, including rising competition from free alternatives like Symbian and Android, the loss of some key licensees, and some shortcomings in its user interface," iSuppli analyst Tina Teng said in a report. "However, Windows Mobile holds some major cards that will allow it to remain a competitive player in the market."

Even after several years of progress that Microsoft executives admit has been too slow, Microsoft still has 15 percent of the market, according to iSuppli. In part, that's because the phones remain an inexpensive and easy-to-support option for many businesses that use Microsoft's e-mail server and management tools.

For its interface tweaks and new services, Windows Mobile 6.5 is an interim update to Windows Mobile, inserted into the product's road map only after a larger overhaul--Windows Mobile 7--got held up in various delays.

Microsoft is now expected to debut that product --as well as Windows Mobile-based successors to the Sidekick family known collectively by the code name Pink --sometime next year.

Teng noted that the lack of support for the kind of capacitive touch screen found on the iPhone is a key drawback for Microsoft's partners.

"This represents a major barrier for smartphone (makers) that would like to produce innovative phones," Teng said. However, she said she expects that to be remedied with Windows Mobile 7.

In the meantime, Microsoft plans to push hard on the marketing front, launching a large ad campaign for Windows Phone that will include some TV spots in addition to print and online advertisements.

The launch of Windows Mobile 6.5 comes both as CTIA wireless show kicks off in San Diego and Microsoft's Robbie Bach hosts a consumer event in New York.

 

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