Windows Phone 7: the next great smartphone OS

Microsoft knows how to compete in the operating system space

In recent years the mobile phone space has been upended with the rise of Android and iOS smartphone operating systems. But the arrival this month of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 and Nokia’s Symbian-based N8 make the battle for mobile computing a four horse race.

If we look at how the new generation of smartphone operating systems are distributed to consumers, Apple’s iOS remains the odd one out simply because it remains tied to the iPhone (and iPad) hardware.

Android, Symbian and Windows Phone 7 (and presumable subsequent versions) are all “open” in the sense that they are available for handset makers to “OEM” the operating system with their devices.

Of these three Android has seen the most success as it started as the operating system of choice for the Open Handset Alliance, not just Google. The OHA now claims 78 tech and mobile companies in its ranks.

Some commentators have said Windows Phone 7 is late to the party (for Microsoft), and to some extent that is true, but let’s not forget Microsoft was actually a pioneer in smartphone operating system development.

The former Windows Mobile commanded a healthy share of the smartphone market before being swiftly overtaken by Android, the iPhone and RIM’s BlackBerry in the business market.

HTC, one of Microsoft’s closest phone OEMs, used to ship Windows Mobile quite fervently before aggressively turning its attention to Android. With Phone 7 now available, HTC is a launch partner so the good relationship lives on.

Make no mistake about Microsoft’s intentions with Phone 7. It knows it missed the start of the rich mobile computing experience revolution, but it also knows how to compete in the operating system space.

Microsoft wants Phone 7 to be the next Android and it will cozy up to the OEMs to make that happen.

It’s too early to say Phone 7 has “missed the boat” or can’t compete with the Android-iOS juggernaut.

As I’ve discussed on my TechWorld blog, Windows Phone 7 has a lot of catching up to do, but Microsoft is what it is today because of its operating system delivery model.

Others have said the success of Phone 7 will depend on the applications available. Given the success of iOS and Android has been largely due to their respective this is true, but again, it’s Microsoft we’re talking about here.

There no reason why Microsoft’s ISV network and app development skills can’t be successfully applied to its new generation mobile OS.

The Marketplace app store is already available and back in August Microsoft announced a series of Xbox live games for Windows Phone 7. Enough said?

And then there’s Symbian. Symbian is still well ahead of the others in terms of handset numbers but its growth has been lacklustre compared with iOS and Android.

See this smartphone sales buy operating system graphic for a good representation of Gartner’s numbers.

Nokia has tried hard to free Symbian from the shackles of an OEM-only mobile operating system to an open source platform that, like Android, can be used by any vendor.

The biggest problem for Nokia is this strategy hasn’t taken off as it would have hoped.

The new N8 is this year’s flagship Symbian device and it will be fighting hard to main the operating system’s relevance. Sure there are enough Symbian devices already out there, but the more modern, “smarter” versions of Symbian are competing in a whole new ball game now.

Add to this Nokia’s MeeGo strategy and one can’t help but wonder if Symbian will continue to be the company’s smartphone operating system of choice for its future devices.

With one new beginner and two rising stars, the consumer smartphone operating system market looks more vibrant than ever.

Microsoft, with its arsenal of ISVs, alliances and infrastructure is set to re-enter the smartphone market in a big way with Windows Phone 7. Only this time it will face fiercer competition than it ever did on the desktop.

Rodney Gedda is Editor of TechWorld Australia. Follow Rodney on Twitter at @rodneygedda. Rodney's e-mail address is rodney_gedda@idg.com.au. Follow TechWorld Australia on Twitter at @Techworld_AU.

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