SAN JOSE, Calif. – After its debacle with the Kin, Microsoft has gotten its smartphone act together with the announcement of its first Windows Mobile 7 phones. But in a broader context, these are really the last—or near last—of the iPhone-alikes for an industry sector still germinating the next big leap forward.
The nine new Win7 phones are table stakes to get Microsoft back in the smartphone game. But their innovations, and those of most of the industry over the last few years, are incremental ones compared to the original Apple iPhone.
The iPhone was the first to seize on the idea that decent access to the open Internet was the killer app for the smartphone. It broke away from the flip-phone form factor of the time to adopt a fat candy bar design needed to provide a decent sized screen for viewing Web pages.
A few China knock offs quickly followed. LG Electronics, HTC, Samsung and RIM were pretty fast to field more thoughtful models. Motorola has been playing a fast game of catch up using Google's Android.
Now comes Microsoft. I give the world's largest software maker credit for its somewhat radical experiment with the Kin phone that tried to merge social network and mobile trends that fell flat with Gen X-ers.
The new phones mark a more conservative approach to fielding world-class iPhone-alikes with a dash of incremental innovation. Most of the new stuff comes from adapting to the Windows Mobile platform the interesting interface of the Zune, Microsoft's otherwise mediocre MP3 player.
I would say Microsoft was the last major player to respond to the iPhone challenge, but Nokia has yet to really weigh in with a solid open-Web handset. To date, Nokia's non-response to the iPhone led to its CEO getting the boot. The new Nokia head faces his own challenges leading the world's largest cellphone maker which will be the last to really respond to the iPhone phenomena.
Microsoft has support from the usual suspects, its most loyal OEMs. Dell, HTC, LG and Samsung said they will make Win7 phones, and HTC announced the first five of nine Win7 models.
All four OEMs are longtime close partners of Microsoft, quick to roll out a device supporting whatever consumer or mobile platform Microsoft concocts. All four are likely to continue to place bets on Google Android that are at least as large as their commitment to Win7 Mobile.
Qualcomm is the big winner. Microsoft said all Win7 phones will use its Snapdragon apps processor. Specifically the first Win7 phones are based on Qualcomm QSD8250 or QSD8650 SoCs which include a gigahertz-class apps processor and separate modem block, a Qualcomm spokesman said.
It's not clear which model or why Microsoft is excluding the Nvidia Tegra (used in the Kin and Zune), the TI OMAP and other options—including the Intel Atom. Officially, Microsoft would only say it worked with OEMs and operators to deliver a consistent hardware experience for Win7 phones.
I suspect Microsoft wanted to limit its porting and hardware support work, and Qualcomm was willing to make the biggest resource commitment to supporting Microsoft. Qualcomm and Microsoft created a marketing video available online.
Microsoft claims the Win7 phones will make it easier to get to data and tasks. That's in part because the OS is very customizable and supports many automated real-time update features.
Palm's WebOS--now owned by Hewlett-Packard--had a similar story, though a much different implementation. Frankly in the age of information overload I don't want to spend time customizing my cellphone OS and reading real-time updates that are probably poorly targeted to my real interests.
That said, I have to say the improvements made to the Zune interface are interesting. I could see myself having fun creating "Live Tiles" with personal photographs and assembling an interface that puts up from the tiles I most want to see.
Ironically, users may have more power to customize the phones than OEMs. They will have to use a GHz Snapdragon, a display no larger than 4.3 inches (there is probably a minimum size too), and they must support Win7's three hardware buttons--back, start and search. I suspect there is a laundry list of other Win7 hardware requirements the OEMs know only too well.
Microsoft has also taken the corporate kneejerk reaction of leveraging existing products. It has created mobile versions of its Xbox Live and Zune services to appeal to its games and music customers.
At the end of the day, these are solid products that will find a significant market. They clearly are great for those who want an iPhone-like experience and prefer it on Windows. Microsoft has a strong corporate focus on making the product successful with future iterations and models.
Two analysts have chimed in with some great perspective of there own. Read their comments here.
The Win7 phones don't show any major new direction for the smartphone, however. Even Apple is stuck in incremental innovation these days. It's much touted iPhone 4 was little more than a different style case with two cameras to support video chat.
The real innovation for smartphones will probably wait until late next year when we see some of the first phones built for LTE networks. The greater bandwidth combined with access to 45 and 28nm chips has potential to unlock new kinds of user experiences—or at least drive new form factors and response times for the current smartphone designs.
It will take years for LTE networks to become widespread. It may also take years for engineers to find another killer app as strong as the mobile Web was with the iPhone—even with LTE.
Beyond LTE, I believe flexible displays will drive huge innovations in smartphones that can fit in your pocket and roll out to show a full Web page. This is the iPhone that unrolls into an iPad.
But it's unclear when such flexible displays can be made in volume. No one today is even talking about a timeline for such components.
In the meantime we can have fun customizing our new Win7 handsets.
HTC's Surround is a Win7 phone tailored with a built-in Surround Sound speaker