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Will Windows 8 bring Windows Phone into focus?

Just a few days after the Windows 8 launch, Microsoft's mobile platform gets the spotlight and some heavy support from the software giant and its partners.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
5 min read
Microsoft goes big with Windows Phone 8. James Martin/CNET

After months of teasing, Windows Phone 8 finally takes center stage. Whether Microsoft's mobile efforts will have some staying power or be doomed to a short run still remains to be seen.

Just days after the large, splashy launch of Windows 8 in Manhattan, Microsoft is holding a similar event for its Windows Phone 8 platform. Also on hand were key partners, such as HTC, Nokia, and Samsung Electronics, which all had phones ready to show off.

At stake for Microsoft is its future in the world of technology and consumer electronics. While the traditional Windows software remains the company's breadwinner, everything is going mobile, and Microsoft could slip into irrelevancy if it doesn't catch up to the giants in the industry, Apple and Google.

With Windows 8 and Windows RT, Microsoft is attempting to move more toward mobile devices, first with laptops and "convertibles," as well as tablets, including its own Surface. Windows Phone 8, which shares many of the same visual cues and a similar "core," is Microsoft's attempt to build a comparable presence in the smartphone world.

"If you're one of hundreds of millions of PC users that will use Windows 8 this year, there is no better phone for you than a Windows Phone," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said during the presentation today.

Microsoft will spare no expense promoting Windows Phone 8, tying the platform into the same family as Windows 8 and Windows RT in a massive campaign that the company hopes will drum up attention for all of its products.

James Martin/CNET

Microsoft is "investing significantly in the marketing push for Windows 8, and I believe that their strategy is to exert a 'coattail' strategy for Windows Phone 8: drive adoption and awareness of Windows 8 in order to build familiarity and recognition among customers for Windows Phone 8," said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Indeed, Microsoft appears ready to go big with this launch.

"You won't be able to turn on a TV or open a magazine without seeing a Microsoft ad," Ballmer boasted.

Big challenges remain
Of course, it's no guarantee that the Windows 8 love will spread to Windows Phone. In fact, there's no guarantee that there will be any love for Windows 8 itself, with many businesses and consumers taking a cautious approach to the radical, new experience.

Microsoft's strategy may backfire on the company if consumers and businesses are slow to adopt Windows 8, which would do little to build familiarity with Windows Phone.

"I see this as a risky strategy because our data indicate that it will take a long time to see broad adoption of Windows 8 and the phone and tablet markets are moving extremely quickly," Golvin said.

Companies surveyed by Forrester said they were half as likely to deploy Windows 8 than when they were asked the question about Windows 7 in 2009.

Read CNET's hands-on impressions of Windows Phone 8 here.

Still, Microsoft could barely do worse when it comes to the mobile end. Despite critical praise and several partners willing to build and sell smartphones running on Windows Phone, the platform hasn't had much success over the past two years. Instead, it continues to be battered by the dominance of Apple's iPhone and Google's Android operating system and the myriad of high-profile smartphones that use it.

One of the challenges is its unique user interface, which includes live tiles and bold fonts in the place of a grid of app icons. Microsoft is proud of its ability to stand out from Android and iPhone, calling this the new way of using a smartphone.

"We wanted to reinvent the smartphone around you," Joe Belfiore, general manager of the Windows Phone program for Microsoft, said on multiple occasions during the presentation.

But different means getting past the consumers' perceptions and assumptions for how a smartphone works, which hasn't always worked out so well for Microsoft and its partners.

"While there is very little wrong with the software, its design is significantly different from the current status quo of the 'grid of apps' user interface, and this change represents a perceived risk to potential customers," said Ovum analyst Nick Dillon.

Nokia was supposed to spark the Windows Phone world, tapping into its cell phone know-how to build the Lumia line of smartphones; it even managed to get the backing of AT&T for its Lumia 900 this year. Unfortunately, the phone was only a moderate success.

Only further hurting the platform is that Windows Phone 7 devices won't be getting many of the Windows Phone 8 upgrades, burning the few consumers who actually took a chance on it.

Shoring up some weaknesses
Beyond the different user interface, Windows Phone has been hamstrung by the lack of quality apps even as iOS and Android boast hundreds of thousands of apps.

Microsoft directly addressed that issue during the event. Belfiore boasted that its app store now has 120,000 apps, having grown remarkably fast in the last two years.

More importantly, 46 out of the top 50 apps will be on Windows Phone, including a new version of Twitter, UrbanSpoon, and games such as Temple Run. Next year, Windows Phone users will get Pandora with a complimentary year's worth of ad-free service.

Belfiore also took the audience through different features such as an expanded People Hub service, as well as a demonstration of the Kids Corner feature, starring the executive's own children.

Joe Belfiore, manager of Microsoft's Windows Phone team, demos Kid's Corner with his three kids. Josh Miller/CNET

In addition, Microsoft has worked to expand the availability of the platform, doubling its language support to 50 and tripling the number of countries that can access its app store to 191.

Indeed, the company has done a lot of work to make Windows Phone 8 as attractive as possible, and appears to have the support of key partners such as handset manufacturers and carriers. Ballmer himself used a Lumia 920 from Nokia, while Belfiore used a Windows Phone 8X device from HTC.

"With Nokia trying to break in with the Lumia series, and other major handset vendors looking to Windows Phone 8 to provide an alternative to Android, Windows Phone 8 should come into its own in 2013," said Soumen Ganguly, a consultant for Altman Vilandrie.

Now Microsoft just needs to get the consumers to start paying attention. The recent history of Windows Phone has shown that always hasn't been so easy.

Windows Phone 8 grows up
Watch this: Windows Phone 8 grows up