Microsoft sprang three surprises at the UK branch of its Windows Phone 7 launch today.
The first, and one which will probably get the most short term press and may even be quite influential in its own way, was that it persuaded Stephen Fry, noted Apple lover and Microsoft critic, to stand up and say he thinks Microsoft has done something it can be proud of. He likes Windows Phone 7, and thinks Microsoft has finally “got” the fact that people want things to look and feel nice, and be fun, and not just fulfil a remorseless check list of functions.
Perhaps anticipating criticism of Windows Phone 7, he asked the audience, which represented pretty much a who’s who of UK tech press in all its strange grimness, to remember their reaction to the first iPhone launch (it can’t do this or that the press said, yet the public didn’t care) or the G1.
The second surprise was to bring Everything Everywhere CEO Richard Alexander, a man in the midst of a pretty major marketing campaign himself, to the event to speak up for Microsoft as a key partner of Everything Everywhere in its strategy to provide, er, everything, everywhere.
This one was of big relevance to Mobile Europe, as it showed that Microsoft has been working extra hard to get the operators on board with the relaunch, indeed a “complete re-set” as one exec described it, of its mobile OS. In fact, Microsoft has 60 operators lined up to range the devices, in over 30 countries.
Orange is joined in the UK by stable-mate T-Mobile, O2, Vodafone and 3, meaning Microsoft and its OEMs have been ranged at the complete list of UK network owners. Microsoft’s Ashley Highfield, MD Consumer and Online, UK, said that operators were more than a “pipe” for sales and services; Microsoft viewed them as a key partner in adding value to its vision of Windows Phone 7 as an OS that allows personalisation and customisation.
That echoed a remark made earlier by CEO Steve Ballmer, that more than 60 mobile operators around the world are supporting these devices in more than 30 countries.
“Operators play such an important role in also bringing the devices to life in personalisation and services. We appreciate the support of our mobile operators,” he said. There are seven phones at launch – six in the UK; three from HTC, one from Samsung, one from LG, one from Dell. Orange has exclusivity on one phone, the HTC Mozart 7 in France, UK, Spain, Poland, Switzerland, Romania, Portugal and Austria.
The third surprise, and on that may be the most important, is that the phones didn’t seem to be that bad. Now, this isn’t a phone review site, but I’ve seen a lot of OS and UI demos in my time. And this time Microsoft does seem to be getting nearer to producing something you would enjoy using. Its UI is based around its live tiles, which you will have seen before – the square and rectangular blocks that make up the phone home screen. The company has worked hard to bring information out of various applications into the tiles, and into areas it calls hubs – which group together information and apps around a certain area. The hubs are people, pictures, music and video, office and marketplace.
For instance, the people hub shows a contacts list with the info you’d expect, but adds in all recent contact, updates, interaction you’ve had with each contact. Music and video pulls in music and video synced from a PC, as well as subscription services, and any other source of music or video, such as YouTube.
You will of course read rather more in-depth analysis of the actual phones and the software behind them, but I think for a mobile industry point of view, the interesting thing is that Microsoft has gone eyeballs out on this one. It has invested too much on this for this to be another slight revamp to Windows Mobile (as was) and now to Windows Phone.
It has pulled in the big hitters, it has the operators (lots of them) on board, it knows that if it gets this wrong then it will be murdered.
“We do realise this isn’t going to be an easy journey,” Highfield said, “but we hope to change the perception of those who have not been too happy with our previous efforts.”
So if, as the man Fry himself claimed, Microsoft is approaching the market with genuine humility and as the underdog, then Europe’s operators could have another genuinely successful OS to deal with, and to exploit.