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Windows Phone 7 debuts: One phone won't rule them all

Ultra-customized features and a diverse range of hardware are central to the launch of Microsoft's long-anticipated mobile operating system.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Windows Phone 7 handsets
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer shows off nine handsets from the likes of Dell, HTC, Samsung, and LG at the launch of Windows Phone 7. Bonnie Cha/CNET

NEW YORK--If Apple CEO Steve Jobs has spent the past few years pitching the iPhone as the ultimate, universal mobile device, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's answer with his company's Windows Phone 7 OS, is the opposite.

There is, Ballmer subtly implied at today's formal unveiling of Windows Phone 7 here, no such thing as one phone for everyone--but there can be one operating system.

"Everybody should be able to take a look at a Windows Phone and say, 'I can represent me in this device,'" Ballmer explained.

To that end, there are nine Windows Phone 7 devices that will be available in the U.S., from manufacturers Dell, HTC, Samsung, and LG. "You see phones with keyboards," Ballmer said, gesturing to a row of all nine devices in front of him. "You see phones like the LG phones that can play to TV, you'll see super beautiful screens like the beautiful screen on this Samsung...very large screen as you see on this HTC device right here and of course rugged, for-the-hardest-use-type phones like this Dell device."

Five of the phones were previewed to some extent on Monday. For AT&T, there's the business-friendly LG Quantum, the media-heavy HTC Surround (an early fan favorite with its Dolby Surround Sound speakers), and Samsung Focus, all available November 8. For T-Mobile there's the HTC HD7 and Dell Venue Pro, coming later in the season.

With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft aims to offer a middle ground with more flexibility than Apple's dominant iOS and more certainty than the open-ended nature of the Google-built Android open-source software. Or, as Twitter user @DerickP put it while watching live coverage of the event, a "happy medium" between "iDictatorship" and "Androidarchy."

Indeed, ultra-customization and personalization--while maintaining a level of practicality and simplicity--was central to the Windows Phone 7 launch pitch. Ballmer said that the two core key phrases to the development of the operating system were "always delightful and wonderfully mine," an unusual combination of buzzwords that Microsoft hopes will convey that it offers an environment that's highly customizable yet uncluttered and stitched together with a common feel.

Close ties to existing Microsoft products, from Bing search to Bing Maps to Xbox games (including an EA Mobile partnership to bring Xbox Live-enabled games to the phone) and Zune music, were played up too, as was a tight integration with Facebook (in which Microsoft invested three years ago) that pulls photo tags from the social network into the contacts file (or "people hub" as Windows Phone 7 calls it). Microsoft Office was a big item, too, with a slick PowerPoint demo E-mail was touted as functional for both business and personal use, with the audience getting a kick out of the "I'll be late" button attached to Outlook calendar items. Copy-paste is on the way in early 2011, much to the chagrin of some consumers who were hoping it would be available at launch.

"The user experience is consistent and delightful, and we think that's one of the things that we think people are really going to like," Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president in charge of the Windows Phone program, said as he explained that "hundreds of thousands" of developers were working on applications for the OS.

A few third-party applications were showed off, like eBay, IMDB, Netflix, and a smattering of music apps that tie directly into the Zune-powered music "hub," but apps took far more of a back burner than they would at, say, an Android event.

The message from Microsoft: We have everything for you right here.