Can Windows Phone 7 Change Microsoft’s Mobile Luck?

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Steve Ballmer is typically upbeat about Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s new hope in mobile devices. But can it really succeed?

A minimum of variation

AT&T and Orange will be key collaborators, apparently, in the rollout, with AT&T defining itself at the press conference as a “premier partner” for Windows Phone 7 Series in the United States. In a separate conversation with eWEEK, Microsoft executives suggested there would be a minimum of physical variation between the Windows Phone 7 Series smartphones produced by various manufacturers.

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All Windows Phone 7 Series devices will include three hardware buttons: Start, Back, and Search, the last of which will route users to a dedicated Bing search screen. As rumors suggested before the announcement, the new interface is heavily reminiscent of the Zune HD, down to the fonts and menu navigation.

The devices will lack Flash support at the outset, something that Adobe took pains in the hours leading to the press conference to emphasise was temporary.

“Microsoft and Adobe are working closely together,” a spokesperson from Adobe wrote in an email to eWEEK. “While the newest version of Windows Phone won’t support Flash at initial availability, both companies are working to include a browser plug-in for the full Flash player in future versions of Windows Phone. More details will be shared at Microsoft MIX next month.”

However, “we have no objection to Adobe Flash support,” Ballmer said during the conference, perhaps a dig at Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his reported refusal to allow Flash onto the iPad tablet PC.

Microsoft’s rollout of Windows Phone 7 comes days after research firm comScore released a report showing that the company’s share of the US mobile operating system market declined from 19 percent to 18 percent in the three-month period between September and December 2009. While that percentage decrease is not extraordinarily steep by itself, it indicates that the steady decline in Microsoft’s share of the smartphone OS market is continuing despite October’s release of Windows Mobile 6.5, which was meant to halt that decline.

Early analyst views on Windows Phone 7 seem to be mixed. According to a blog posting by Forrester analyst Charles Golvin, elements such as Xbox Live and Zune integration are positive steps, but “these features won’t matter if Microsoft doesn’t get its branding in line. Our data shows that consumers today haven’t a clue about their phone’s operating system.”

Will it be enough?

Whether Microsoft can change such perceptions will determine whether the company can endure in the mobile space. Ballmer emphasised during the press conference that smartphones remain a “critical” part of the company’s “three screens and a cloud” strategy, and joked about how “seven is our lucky number,” an allusion to the bestselling Windows 7 operating system.

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