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The mobile space is always ready for a good dust-up, will Microsoft's (news, site) Windows Phone 7 be the one to shake the Apple tree?

One Ringtone to Rule them All?

Technology empires regularly come and go. When was the last time you heard the phrase "IBM PC", "Hayes Modem" or  "Sega Console"?.

In the mobile space, things seem to happen even quicker. PDAs -- now smartphones -- were long considered executive tinker toys. It is only in the last few years with BlackBerry, and then Apple's entry into the market (approaching a dominant 70% of the smartphone market between them) that cemented the idea of doing business on the phone.

Windows Phone 7 goes straight for the consumer with its bold, block-panel display, slick all-in-one interface and use of large font sizes. It all looks a million miles away from those HP iPAQ's that were de-riguer but much-despised before the rise of the BlackBerry.

The hype around the announcement is rather reminiscent of Windows 7 blowing PC users away after the botched launch of Windows Vista. It's a big improvement on Microsoft's existing product, therefore generates much noise, but still has to appeal to the wider phone market and picky real-world users. Even Microsoft staff seem loathe to drop their iPhones, to the annoyance of the head honchos.

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Microsoft has come a long way in interface design, but is it enough?

But can Microsoft and its many hardware partners (including; LG, Samsung, Garmin, Sony Ericsson, Dell HP and HTC) really storm the iPhone's market share in any meaningful manner?

A Brave New Rebirth

Apple, while hardly being innovative on the ideas front, has redefined the idea of apps and touch screens firmly in the consumer conscience and created a controlled environment to change the market.

Which brings us to the late market re-entrant that is Microsoft. Ever since the early PDAs and smartphones, Microsoft OS-based mobile devices have been clunky and boring to say the least. So, a total refresh was obviously needed. Something it took a brave decision to do, even as Windows 6.5 for smartphones was also in development. 

What the Experts Say

Mark Hattersley, Editor-in-Chief of Macworld UK, took some time to point out what he thinks are the pros and cons of the Microsoft's new play in the market.

The greatest strength is, of course, that it's Windows. Despite everything, that's still an operating system that many people are familiar with and integration with the desktop edition is always a strength Microsoft will have -- especially integration with Office.

Beyond that key features such as tethering (available as standard on Windows Mobile phones) is something you have to pay for on an iPhone. Plus, of course, the OS supports a range of handsets giving consumers choice for things like keyboards, larger screens, haptic screens, and so on."

Too Little, Too Late?

Hattersley also points out the cons:

Weakness is simply timing, above all. Microsoft has been extremely slow to react to the iPhone, and Android, and it's hard to genuinely see a standout feature that Windows 7 Mobile has over the iPhone. The runaway success of Apple's App Store means that many iPhone owners have invested not just in hardware, but software, and it will be hard to convince them to lose all that for a phone that doesn't offer something substantial."

How does he think it will do in the overall marketplace? 

I think it'll struggle to take on Android, let alone the iPhone. Certainly for the next year or so. But Microsoft plays a long game and the mobile market is still incredibly new. I have no idea on numbers - shall we say"

Slightly more optimistic, Ben Harvell, editor of iCreate magazine, reckons

It seems the UI has more of a social bent than the iPhone which is a bonus for today's web-focused, social networking obsessed market. I also like the fact that (according to MS) all of the contacts I need and the information I'm after is available quickly and from the interface, not within individual apps. I would even go so far as to say I like the design! XBox Live integration will be a major deciding factor for a massive user base of gamers."

Under Pressure

The pressure is on Microsoft to get this right the first time. Apple got a lot of flack for issues with its early iPhones that have taken many updates and the recent 3GS model to put right. Apple still hasn't mastered multitasking, although that should be sorted by summer, and refuses to let Flash run.

Microsoft will not have the luxury of time (Zune, anyone?) on its side to get issues right. The phones, user interface, app store, the number of apps and marketing, all need to be 100% present and correct on launch day. 

Inter-Face-Off

On the plus side:

Range: Compared to Apple's single choice (barring memory sizes) of three different phone-types lets the buyer pick the phone of their choice:

  • Large touchscreen (iPhone)
  • Keyboard at the bottom model (Palm Treo-style)
  • Candybar or (possibly) slide-out keyboard (To be confirmed)

Office: Compatibility with SharePoint and Microsoft Office means instant access to most of the world's businesses.

Games: Linking into the Xbox Live brand could tempt gamers and the power of the SnapDragon CPU and portability of DirectX means a big gaming cross-over. Something that could produce better PSP-style gaming rather than the iPhone staples of cutesy time wasters.

On the minus side:

Brand: The name, "Windows Phone 7 Series" is already a confusing, jumbled, marketing loser. Hopefully, something snappier will be available by release -- or phone makers will use their own branding -- but that too will dilute the idea of a unified ecosystem which is where Apple has made its mark.

Late, late, late: Microsoft is so far behind the curve, to be almost off the chart.

Fortune Favors the Brave

Perhaps the biggest advantage Microsoft has is that a large core of phone users are gadget buyers who want the latest, coolest toys. It's this vocal minority of people who brought Apple into the market and they could do the same for Microsoft -- if the product hits the right notes.

Time will tell if these people are Apple-followers in the Mac sense, or just a passing crowd willing to leave their iPhones behind.

Check it out for yourself: