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Sony Ericsson: Microsoft said no, no, no

How the Xperia X1 mobile phone, which hits its first markets very soon, convinced Redmond to free Windows.

With Sony Ericsson's inaugural Windows Mobile device set to be launched in the coming days, the handset maker has revealed that it had to convince Microsoft to embrace plans to make the Windows interface more user-friendly.

Sony Ericsson hopes that the Microsoft device, first announced at the Mobile World Congress event in February, will appeal to "fast living" professional types who want to be able to use their device for work and play. The Xperia X1 will be released first in the U.K., Germany, and Sweden.

To take the device beyond Windows' traditional business roots, Sony Ericsson has added a user-friendly front end to the OS in the form of nine customizable panel icons. The panels enable users to run applications straight off the desktop, rather than digging through the Windows menu structure to find and boot them, and the phone maker has also launched an SDK to encourage developers to create more and more panels.

Xperia X1
The Xperia X1 from Sony Ericsson has a unique QWERTY keyboard slider that arcs out from underneath the phone. Sony Ericsson

Keisuke Kakoi, head of product and application planning, convergence unit, said Microsoft's initial response to Sony Ericsson's plan to skin the OS with panels was not a positive one.

"I still remember in the very beginning phase we a little bit (did) disclose our panel concept to Microsoft, and (the) first reaction from Microsoft was 'no, no, no! Please stay Microsoft way, Windows way.' But we showed the panel application, then Microsoft top management suddenly (changed to): 'yes, OK, you should do that'."

Microsoft quickly came to accept and understand the panel concept, Kakoi said, adding that Sony Ericsson is now working closely with the software giant: "We are getting lots of help with them as well."

The X1 runs the Opera mobile Web browser as a default, despite also having Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Sony Ericsson has high hopes for the Xperia--not just that it will appeal to "prosumers" but that it could even tempt enterprises away from the wares of BlackBerry-maker RIM, which has also been adding a multimedia entertainment edge to its offerings.

"Our sister companies like Sony Pictures, Sony BMG, everyone has (an) office in (the) West Coast (of the U.S.)--we can work easily (with them) of course. Unfortunately RIM cannot do that," Kakoi said.

"But also we are open to work with RIM," Kakoi said. "They are approaching us as well because they have the Windows Mobile BlackBerry client...You can see BlackBerry and its size as direct (competition) but also we can potentially work together. So this is an open platform product really."

Kakoi works at Sony Ericsson's Silicon Valley office--saying that the company wanted to have a base in the heart of Web development country where there are "so many creative companies," adding it is even working with Apple in "the connectivity area."

Asked why it has chosen to offer a Windows Mobile phone now, company CTO Mats Lindoff said: "The adventure started in 2001--those days we had 4 (percent), 5 percent market share. I think we had almost 10 (percent) in Q4 and of course when you grow you can also grow the opportunity to develop, you have more resources, you are reaching out to more markets.

Sony Ericsson wanted to focus on the U.S., where Windows Mobile is much stronger than Symbian, Lindoff said. "That's the only business phone we've done in the past. So for me it's a natural development of the company and I also think that (as for) operating systems we are not religious."

Lindoff added he didn't rule out the possibility of the Xperia being a Symbian Foundation product in the future.

Asked why the Xperia X1 has been in development for such an apparently long period, Magnus Andersson, senior product manager for the X1, said: "We've done this in a record time. I remember we talked about this (internally)--'is this the right time to go out, at Mobile World Congress? It's quite early in the development phase, should we wait?'"

Normally on development projects, the company holds an announcement until they're nearly finished. "But we said no, we've kept this very well as a secret and we have something pretty unique, we have something great to tell the audience so let's just do it," Andersson said.

Kakoi added that it has spent more time than usual developing the X1 as it's a "new platform for us." Since February, he added, the handset maker has been working on performance tuning and also customization for each market the phone will be sold in.

"It's not that it's taking us very long, we actually announced it very early," Kakoi said. "We are still delivering and performing on our original schedule that we had that day (at Mobile World Congress) in Barcelona."

Natasha Lomas of Silicon.com reported from London.