BARCELONA – At Mobile World Congress today, Microsoft finally offered an entirely new look and feel for its mobile operating system in Windows Phone 7 Series.
Presented as a complete reboot with no obvious remnants from the existing Windows Mobile operating systems (except for that “Start” button), Microsoft has finally delivered what almost every other competitor has already done to varying degrees of success: an answer to Apple’s iPhone.
When Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage this morning, his near-feverish excitement almost matched some of those who regularly clapped and yelped gleefully in the standing-room-only crowd.
“We hope seven is our lucky number,” he said later on during the press conference. But before he projected that deep, excitable voice like only Ballmer can do, he turned the stage over to Joe Belfiore, VP of Windows Phone.
Having joined Microsoft’s mobile division about 18 months ago, the 20-year Microsoft employee walked the audience through Microsoft’s internal thinking as it sought to develop a user interface that felt less like a PC and one that could keep up with all the changes in architecture.
The project began with many more questions than answers, but demonstrating the software live for the first time today, Belfiore said it boils down to two key characteristics: smart design and integrated experiences.
“We wanted to really get into depth and think about the user experience all the way from the hardware and software and the way they work,” he said.
After jumping into the “Start” menu, the first thing you see is a table of what Microsoft is calling “live tiles,” which are essentially super icons that change dynamically to reflect the content coming in over the Internet in relation to each application.
There are tiles for people, Xbox Live, Zune music and video player, most recent photos taken and a variety of cloud-based applications whether it be social networking sites or music streaming services.
Similar to what many handset manufacturers have done of late, Microsoft is aiming to make all of the content on the phone seamless, rather than separating each into its own silo or standalone application.
And of course, being Microsoft, the OS includes the Microsoft Office Hub, and builds on the concept of Windows, Internet Explorer, Bing Search, Bing Maps, Live and more.
“We support this theme of work and home life coming together on your phone in an elegant way,” Belfiore said.
Not only will every Windows Phone 7 Series be a Zune via the Music & Video Hub, but much of the look and menu layout of the OS is strikingly similar to the Zune. It’s probably no surprise considering Belfiore worked on the Zune team prior to jumping over to mobile. Also, when any device running the new OS is plugged into a PC, Zune software automatically pops up on the screen to allow users to manage their content, applications and more.
It’s clear Microsoft started over when it came time to update its increasingly outdated operating system, but it didn’t look far or even outside its organization for a path to follow.
Microsoft left a few specifics untold for now, but every 7 Series device will have a multi-touch capacitive touchscreen and core applications and services that Windows users (including mobile, PC, Zune and Xbox) are already familiar with.
“There’s no doubt that this whole market is A. highly competitive, B. highly dynamic and C. super exciting,” Ballmer said, adding that having a differentiated view is where he thinks Microsoft’s greatest value lies in mobile.
“The innovation of developers is absolutely fundamental,” he said, adding that each of them can assume that all of the core applications and services will be part of the foundation of the OS and not something they might have to rebuild themselves.
“We really raised the platform on which people can build,” Ballmer said. “There’s no question we had to step back a year and a half to two years ago” and start over.
When Windows Phone 7 Series launches just in time for the all important holiday shopping season at the end of this year, a number of hardware and network partners will be right there from day one. On the hardware side LG, Qualcomm, Samsung, Garmin Asus, HTC, Toshiba, Dell, HP and Sony Ericsson will be ready at launch and on the network operator side Microsoft already has deals in place with T-Mobile USA, Telefonica, Sprint Nextel, Vodafone, AT&T Mobility, Orange, Deutsche Telecom, Verizon Wireless, Telecom Italia and Telstra. AT&T and Orange will also be investing together with Microsoft to customize devices for their customer bases.
While Microsoft took a fresh look at its operating system it’s not going to be changing its business model anytime soon, Ballmer said.
“I think there’s something clean and simple to understand about our model. We build something and we sell that,” he said. “We sell software to people that make devices … If something is free you should find out where the real cost is.”
Finally, while Ballmer made a point of saying that Microsoft has no objection to supporting Adobe Flash on the OS, the first version of the 7 Series will not include support for the technology.
Matt Kapko can be reached at [email protected]