D-Day as Microsoft unveils its flagship smartphone

Exactly one month ago, the employees at Microsoft’s Redmond HQ threw a funeral procession cum party celebrating the demise of the iPhone and the Blackberry. The event, while obviously tongue-in-cheek, was a clear sign of how confident Microsoft was feeling about completing work on its new Windows Phone 7 (WP7). The message was clear: Microsoft has designed an “iPhone killer”. Today, October 12, that claim will be put to the test as Microsoft launches WP7 to a sceptical public.

It is hard to over-emphasize how important this launch is for Microsoft, the company that once defined personal computing, but which today seems to be only a shadow of its former self. “This is an 11 on a scale of one to 10,” said Ramon Llamas of technology research firm IDC. “Microsoft has been slow to come to market, and when they do, they use yesterday’s technology. There’s some catching up to do.”

Technology analysis firm Gartner was scathing, predicting that the launch is likely to be a non-event, stating that “….Windows Phone 7, set to be formally introduced next week, will barely move the needle on the company’s dismal share of the smartphone OS market”.

The launch will be handled by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who came across as quietly confident to the Wall Street Journal. Ballmer acknowledged that Google and Apple have moved really quickly to dominate the mobile space, but he noted that “the fact that things have been pretty dynamic means that they’re probably still pretty dynamic”. Back in 2007, Ballmer infamously commented that “there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” History has proven him catastrophically wrong, as the iPhone went on to become Apple’s best-selling product of all time.

There have been hints, forecasts and a general feeling that Microsoft may be about to launch something special. During technical previews of the phone, definitive mobile blog Engadget wrote “We were extremely surprised and impressed by the software’s touch responsiveness and speed,” while ZDNet.com reported “I am blown away by how stable this version of the software is”.

There was further positive, if not exactly glowing, analysis on tech-blog MobileCrunch in July, which neatly captured the underlying dilemna: “…while lovely, WP7 has an absolutely ridiculous mountain to climb. Microsoft is returning as an underdog in an arena where they once reigned as champion — and they’re an underdog with weights tied to their feet and a reputation of being too old to fight. They’re miles behind the competition, both in timing and functionality.”

Microsoft has chosen not to develop its own handsets at this stage, but rather to work with Samsung, HTC and LG to supply handsets, which will reportedly be available before Christmas. Ballmer again: “We put out to our partners that we were going to build on a certain minimal so-called hardware chassis. So you could say we did some design work, but we’re certainly not selling phones.” The Associated Press notes that “smartphones powered by WP7 will run email from various services, not just Microsoft’s Hotmail, integrate calenders, contacts and social networks and allow for documents to be viewed, edited and shared using Microsoft Office. WP7, which represents a shift for Microsoft from the enterprise market to the consumer, will also allow users to tap into Microsoft’s Zune music player ecosystem and to access mobile versions of Xbox 360 games.”

Microsoft, while under pressure, has not been completely without success over the last year. Its search engine, Bing, has steadily won over critics, while the Windows 7 operating system has relegated Vista to a distant bad memory. But the train smash that was Microsoft Kin is looming large over the new smartphones. For those who missed it, the Kin was a range of mobile phones that were launched by Microsoft and Verizon in April 2010 and discontinued only six weeks later. The reasons are many, but essentially the phone was over-priced, had no apps or game features, and could barely manage what other smartphones do in their sleep. Critically, it also lacked any cool factor at all, and this is something that WP7 has to get right.

The launch, which takes place in New York at the Microsoft Technology Centre, kicks off at 3PM Eastern Time and you can watch it all as it happens right here.



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