Windows Phone 7: Is It Too Little Too Late?

Long time critics of Microsoft who have been saying the Windows user interface is inappropriate for mobile phones, won today with the announcement of Windows Phone 7 at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, Spain. The Windows desktop UI that has been part of Microsoft’s handheld operating systems since 1993 has been replaced by the Zune UI, which has received positive reviews since it’s introduction with the Zune HD on May 26, 2009. As the analysis takes place on today’s announcement, the bottom line question is, is Windows Phone 7 a case of too little too late for Microsoft? Unfortunately, we will not even begin to know the answer to the question until this time next year as devices are not scheduled to be available for purchase until the end of this year.

Windows Phone 7 Start Screen – Picture courtesy of Microsoft

Over the last several years there had been rumors of Microsoft selling a “Zune phone.” If such a term is meant to be that Microsoft will manufacture and sell their own phone, that will not be the case as Microsoft will continue to work with hardware and carrier partners to build, market, and sell devices. If the term is meant to describe the user experience, then as presented today, Windows Phone 7 is a Zune Phone. In fact, during the presentation Microsoft Vice President of Windows Phone, Joe Belifiore said that every Windows Phone 7 will be a Zune. By this he means that when you plug in a Windows Phone 7 into a PC running the Zune desktop software, the phone will be recognized as a Zune for synchronization of music and video. From the demonstrations that I have seen, I really wonder why Microsoft is holding on to the Windows branding given that Windows Phone 7 has little resemblance to Windows.

The videos that I have seen of Windows Phone 7 running on hardware shows the best performance I have ever seen of a Microsoft handheld operating system. The devices appear to respond instantly to any user interaction, much like the Zune HD does today. What we don’t know from the demos are the hardware specifications of the hardware in the demo.

The image above shows the hardware specification has three hardware buttons, Start (to get to the start screen), Search (for Bing search), and Back. There appears to be no hardware buttons for phone functionality (start and end call) which I think might be a problem for some, though the iPhone only has one hardware button.

Windows Phone 7 requires touch screens and therefore will mark the end of non-touchscreen Windows Mobile phones. Users that prefer the non-touchscreen “traditional” Windows Mobile Smartphones will be disappointed, but I just don’t think Windows Phone 7 will work well on those devices if they were to continue to be supported.

The biggest gap in Microsoft’s announcement is around applications. Microsoft even presented a video during the announcement that took a jab at Apple’s emphasis on applications, and on how users access iPhone applications one at a time. Microsoft’s corporate customers will want more details about how to develop applications for Windows Phone 7. Companies that make Windows Mobile applications will want to know how difficult it will be port applications to Windows Phone 7. As is always the case for new platforms, and Windows Phone 7 is a new platform, the key to success will be the availability of applications that people want to use.