Microsoft's new smartphone platform is nearing completion, as the company aims to reset its mobile strategy and compete more effectively against relative newcomers such as Apple and Google, which have succeeded in taking significant market share over the past few years.
Microsoft announced earlier this week that Windows Phone 7 had reached its Technical Preview milestone. This means that the platform is largely complete, and that Microsoft is about to deliver it to vendors for integration with handset hardware and network operators for certification.
However, Windows Phone 7 faces an uphill battle against Apple's iPhone 4, which is showing strong sales despite its much publicised antenna problems, as well as competition from new high-end Android handsets coming to market in the next few months. Then there is Symbian, which still accounts for over 40 per cent of the global handset market.
Windows Phone 7 is in part a response to these platforms, according to Greg Sullivan, Microsoft's senior product manager for Windows Phone.
In particular, Microsoft has drawn lessons from how the iPhone managed to infiltrate the enterprise market, thanks to users purchasing the device for themselves and expecting the IT department to support it for official work purposes.
"The dynamic of consumers driving smartphone demand has informed the development path on Windows Phone 7," Sullivan said.
The end result is that the new platform has a greater focus on the end user experience, and Microsoft has also taken a leaf out of Apple's book with regard to tighter control of the hardware specifications than earlier platforms such as Windows Mobile.
In the past, Microsoft tended to just "shove a release out the door", Sullivan said, and let the handset makers and carriers build what they wanted around it. In contrast, Apple's control over all aspects of a device has allowed it to deliver a more polished product, he conceded.
Microsoft's new approach has the advantage of delivering a more consistent user experience, but on the downside has less scope for customisation, especially for carriers that like to stamp their own brand identity on handsets with custom skins, menus and the like.
"We've tried to take the best aspects of both ends of the spectrum. There's guidance on things like the minimum processor speed, memory, graphics acceleration and screen resolution. Partners will be able to extend on these, but they won't be able to take anything away," Sullivan explained.
For example, every Windows Phone 7 handset will have three controls - a back button, start button and search button - in addition to a multi-touch screen.
With the user interface itself, Microsoft has tried a radical departure from any other handset platform, focusing on what tasks the user wants to accomplish with their phone rather than applications, and bringing all the relevant information to the fore.
"It seems to have become accepted that a smartphone user interface is a grid of icons, but we can do better than that," Sullivan said.
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