Microsoft is hoping that a new crop of phones this fall will help the company in its quest to stay relevant in the cell phone market.
The software maker said that the first phones running Windows Mobile 6.5 will launch worldwide on October 6 and will include phones running on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless. The new crop of phones will also be the first that Microsoft will sell under the “Windows Phone” brand, an effort to tap into the marketing power of its flagship desktop operating system. With Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft is hoping to convince users that its phones are not just good for doing work. Much of Microsoft’s phone focus in recent times has been on improving the operating system’s consumer features in an effort to regain ground lost to rivals. “We know people want a phone for their whole life,” said Stephanie Ferguson, general manager in the Windows Mobile unit. “They just frankly want to do more. That’s why we’ve shifted.” Although it includes features such as improved Web browsing and conversation threaded e-mail, as well as a new Windows Marketplace app store, Windows Mobile 6.5 is seen largely as an interim upgrade of the operating system.
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Microsoft has come under criticism for the rather slow pace at which its software has evolved in the face of competition from the iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, and Palm Pre. AT&T, which is one of Microsoft’s oldest partners in the cell phone business, said that it is supporting Windows Mobile 6.5, although the carrier acknowledged that Apple and others in the market have grown faster. Even in large corporations, Windows Mobile has not maintained the position it once seemed poised to inherit. “Microsoft probably didn’t get the share of the enterprise space that we all would have expected three or four years ago,” said Jeff Bradley, senior vice president of devices for AT&T. “I think Research In Motion did even a better than expected job of gaining that share.” AT&T didn’t say which of its phones will support Windows Mobile 6.5, but it will likely be a mix of new phones and current models that can be upgraded to the new OS. The company is looking to close one gap between Windows Mobile and its rivals. Starting next month, customers will be able to more easily use their Windows Mobile phones on AT&T’s Wi-Fi network, matching a feature already available to its BlackBerry and iPhone users. As for Android, AT&T has yet to commit publicly to shipping an Android phone, but Bradley said the company is actively studying whether to do so. “We are going to do what’s right for customers,” Bradley said. “It’s an important development in the industry and one that we are watching real carefully to make sure that our customers have choice and the best service.” For her part, Ferguson said she believes that Windows Mobile 6.5 is a significant step forward, although she declined to predict whether Microsoft will gain share in the wake of its release. “These are going to be fabulous phones that meet the customers’ needs for their whole life,” Ferguson said. “In the end, that’s how I judge us.” The October 6 launch ties in with a “consumer open house” event that Microsoft Entertainment and Devices President Robbie Bach is hosting that day in New York City. One of the big pushes with the new release is the Windows Marketplace app store. Although Microsoft has long offered tens of thousands of applications, they have been hard to find and download, something Marketplace is designed to address. While the Marketplace will launch with Windows Mobile 6.5, Ferguson declined to say how many programs have been submitted or approved thus far. Ferguson did say that among the programs will be Netflix, Facebook, and a variety of games. “We need enough apps that customers can have some great choice,” Ferguson said. As for the Netflix app, I checked and it lets users manage their queue or watch previews, but not actually watch movies form their queue. (That would have been a compelling feature, I reckon.) Microsoft will also formally launch its free My Phone service, which has been in beta. In addition to backing up contacts, calendar, text messages, photos, and other data, the service will also have a “Find My Phone” feature, similar to a paid iPhone service that helps users locate a lost iPhone. In a July interview, Todd Brix said that the Find My Phone can be used to remotely send a message to a phone and cause it to ring, even if it is set to vibrate. If that still doesn’t locate it, users can look up on a map where the phone last synchronized to the service. Users can also remotely lock the phone and send a message to it urging whoever has it to call a specific number. If that doesn’t work, users can also remotely wipe the device. The software maker has said little of its plans for Windows Mobile beyond the current release, although the software maker has been working for more than two years now on a more substantial overhaul of the operating system as well as a collection of new consumer-oriented mobile services. The operating system upgrade, Windows Mobile 7, was originally expected early this year and has hit several delays. It’s now not expected until sometime next year. Microsoft is expected to work closely with a smaller number of hardware makers, who will be among the first to adopt the new products when they debut next year. AT&T’s Bradley declined to talk about Microsoft’s roadmap for the future, but said he has seen some encouraging signs that the company will make devices with more consumer appeal. “I have every reason to think they are going to make that happen,” Bradley said. “That’s frankly an imperative.”