M'soft mobile platform upgrade
Barcelona - Microsoft on Monday unveiled an upgrade to its mobile operating system as the US software giant seeks to regain lost ground in the competitive handset market.
Windows Mobile 7 was made public on the first day of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, ending months of speculation about what Microsoft had in store for the industry's biggest trade show.
The new system, which follows the launch of Windows Mobile 6.5 in October, is "a major new step in our strategy," Nicolas Petit, director of Microsoft's mobile division in France, told AFP.
"It is a total break from what we were doing before," Petit said.
Microsoft completely changed the platform's interface, with a "dynamic screen" allowing users to install his or her favourite icon, from music, to contacts and social networks, he said.
Microsoft has been up against strong competition from telecommunications giant Nokia's Symbian platform and Internet giant Google's Android.
"They do seem to have been pushed on to the back foot with Android which seems to have caught them flat footed," said Jeremy Green, mobile analyst at research firm Ovum.
Google has made a splash in the mobile phone industry with its Android operating system, launched in 2007 in a direct challenge to Microsoft.
Smartphones fitted with Microsoft Windows Mobile had 7.9% market share in the third quarter of last year compared with 11.1% in the same period in 2008, according to research group Gartner.
The leaders during that quarter were phones with Nokia's Symbian technology, with 44.6% market share, followed by BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion (RIM) with 20.8% and Apple's iPhone operating system 17.1%, according to Gartner.
"A couple of years ago the perception was that the OS war was between Microsoft and Symbian and then suddenly nobody talks about Microsoft anymore," Green said.
"All the running and all the excitement have been about Android," he said.
The first phones fitted with Windows Mobile 7 will be available later this year, Petit said. Microsoft's partners include phone operators AT&T, Orange and Deutsche Telekom and equipment makers Samsung, LG, HTC and Sony Ericsson.
The system includes six "hubs" that group services by themes, such as a "people" inbox that includes emails, text messages and updates from social network activities, or an Xbox Live icon to play games online.
Lifeblood of smartphones
Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer was to present the new operating system at a press conference later on Monday.
Mobile operating systems are the lifeblood of the increasingly popular smartphones, which allows users to surf the Internet, check and send emails, play music and videos, and take pictures.
Global shipments of smartphones surged by 30% in the last quarter of 2009, according to Strategy Analytics. By comparison, overall handset sales rose by 10% in the same period.
South Korean mobile phone maker Samsung Electronics announced on Sunday that it would launch five new smartphones powered by Android this year, in addition to five other handsets fitted with Samsung's own Bada operating system and a handful with Microsoft's platform.
Google also entered the hardware business last month when it launched its own smartphone, Nexus One, in a challenge against another big rival, Apple, which never attends the Mobile World Congress.
In a signal of Google's ambitions to become a leader in the mobile phone industry, chief executive Eric Schmidt will address the Barcelona event for the first time.
Windows Mobile 7
Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin said the new software looked promising, but that it was also Microsoft's "final chance to get it right."
He notes that those who have current Windows phones don't seem excited about the brand - many of them believe their phones are made by Apple or Nokia Corp, according to his firm's research.
Andy Lees, senior vice president of Microsoft's mobile communications business, said Windows Mobile suffered from the company's chaotic approach to the market.
The software maker gave phone hardware makers and wireless carriers so much freedom to alter the system and install it on so many different devices that none worked the same way.
As a result, while other phone vendors such as Apple linked their hardware and software tightly to ensure a better experience, Windows Mobile might not have looked like it quite fitted on a certain handset.
With the new software, "We really wanted to lead and take much more complete accountability than we had in earlier versions of the Windows phone for the end user experience," CEO Steve Ballmer said at the Barcelona launch event.
Microsoft is imposing a set of required features for Windows phones.
Manufacturers must include permanent buttons on the phone for "home," "search" and "back"; a high-resolution screen with the same touch-sensing technology as the iPhone; and a camera with at least 5 megapixels of resolution and a flash. Hardware QWERTY keyboards will be optional.
A test device from Asus, which Microsoft used to demonstrate the new phone software for The Associated Press in Redmond, Wash., also had a front camera and a speaker.
The iPhone's success has spurred lots of look-alike phones with screenfuls of tiny square icons representing each programme.
Just as it did with the Zune, Microsoft has tried to avoid an icon-intensive copy of that setup. Instead, it relies more on clickable words and images pulled from the content itself.
For example, if you put a weather programme on the device's home page, it shows a constantly updated snapshot of conditions where you are, rather than a static icon that you have to click in order to see the weather.
The idea of pulling information from different websites, like Facebook, and presenting them on the phone's "home" screen isn't unique to Microsoft: Motorola and HTC have created such software for their own phones.
Windows Phone 7 Series borrows the clean look of the Zune software, departing from the more "computer screen" look of earlier Microsoft efforts. These were also reliant on the user pulling out a stylus for more precise manoeuvring, while the software is designed to be used with the fingers.
It's not clear how older third-party application designed for the stylus will work on the new phones.
Most of the built-in applications complement or connect with existing Microsoft programmes or services, such as the Bing search engine. The games "hub" connects to an Xbox Live account and lets players pick up where they left off with multiplayer games.
They will even be able to play games against PC users. Microsoft also turns to the Zune programming for the phones' entertainment hub, much in the way the iPhone's music library is called iPod. And when users plug the phone into a PC, the Zune software pops up to manage music, movies and podcasts.