Microsoft has formally unveiled its overhauled mobile operating system. Known as Windows Phone, the revised operating system is actually Windows 6.5 given a more consumer-friendly moniker. The first handsets go onsale today and, by the end of the year, at least 30 Windows Phone handsets should be launched across 20 different territories.
In the UK, Microsoft has got existing partners Orange and Carphone Warehouse on board, along with handset makers HTC, Toshiba, LG, Sony Ericsson and Samsung. Windows Phone also sees retailer Phones4U embrace the Windows Mobile operating system for the first time.
Windows Phone handsets will be able to automatically synchronise photos, video, files, contacts, email and text message conversations to a web-based secure portal known as My Phone. This, said Microsoft's UK product manager Alex Reeve, will ensure that if a phone is lost or stolen, the owner will still have all their contacts, photos and so on and still, essentially, have their phone.
For users who enable it and who have a GPS module in their phone, a location tool can even be invoked to help them track down the phone.
Automatic synchronisation - controlled via a Windows Live ID login - will also mean people who take lots of photos on their phone have online backups of them and can easily share or send them via Flickr, Facebook, Bebo or email.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said "We all want to connect quickly to the people and information that's important to us from across our lives at work and at home. A Windows Phone lets people take their entire world of digital information, communications, applications and entertainment with them wherever they go".
Windows Phone will come in a number of guises, some touch-enabled, some not, but with largely similar user interfaces whether the primary interface is a physical keypad or via onscreen touch navigation. Multi-touch handsets will be launched further down the line.
Large, "finger-friendly" icons will make item selection easier than on previous Windows Mobile handsets. Three screens, Lock, Start and a Day Screen, are designed to allow the handset owner the most efficient means of getting at and managing their emails, tasks and updates.
The Lock screen, which is what's displayed when the handset is switched on but not in use, displays information such as the time, date, number of missed calls or received emails and so on. A Task indicator at the very top of the screen shows tasks to be done - if there are several, pressing the icon button makes them cascade down the screen so you can see and prioritise them.
The Day screen, meanwhile, offers large icons of both preinstalled applications such as the Internet Explorer Mobile web browser, the Calendar, Task List and email client, along with any others the user has downloaded or that came with the phone.
Multiple email accounts can be set up quickly using just the username and password and can then be managed from the same Email icon on the Windows Phone. A Windows Live ID is required to log in, after which you can scroll up and down emails in an inbox, reply to, forward, delete or tag messages for follow up. Scrolling right or left in the email list takes you to other email accounts you may have set up.
Email accounts can be synchronised with both Exchange Server using Outlook Mobile.
Both handset manufacturers and mobile operators will be able to customise the user interface of the Windows Phone handsets they offer, while consumers will be able to download applications from Windows Marketplace.
Windows Marketplace is Microsoft's take on an app store and brings together the pre-existing library of applications that were already available for Windows Mobile handsets, along with a number of ones that have been specially written to take advantage of the new consumer focus for the OS.
The handset screen will be easy to customise with a range of skins and a specially designed Windows Phone Custom Theme Creator.
As of today's launch, there will be approximately 250 applications available on Windows Marketplace, of which 60 are available to UK users. Microsoft says that this figure is barely a tenth of the number of applications set to launch on Windows Marketplace in the coming weeks.
The UK is one of the key markets for Windows Phone and Microsoft has lined up the high street's two biggest phone vendors and the main operators and handset manufacturers.
The software giant is also set to embark on a TV campaign showing the "fun" side of Microsoft and introducing the idea of familiar communication tools such as MSN, Internet Explorer, Facebook and Twitter all being associated with the Windows Phone. Microsoft says it will be ramping up its marketing and advertising efforts by 40 percent in order to promote Windows Phone.
Launch handsets in the UK will be an updated version of the Toshiba TG01 smartphone (pictured) on the Orange network and the Samsung Omnia II through Carphone Warehouse. Other Windows Phone handsets available at launch will be the HTC Touch II and HTC Touch II HD. The HTC handsets will be offered at Carphone Warehouse on T-Mobile and O2 networks, respectively.
Several more handsets will go onsale at the end of the month including the Sony Ericsson X2 on Vodafone and the Samsung Omnia Pro. Two different versions of the Omnia Pro will be offered through O2 and Carphone Warehouse, with O2's B76210 version coming out a month after Carphone Warehouse's B7730 edition.
With a smartphone market that continues to grow and is set for a predicted increase of 77 percent over the next three years, Microsoft believes the time is right to make its mark in the consumer market. It's already firmly established as a business handset operator and believes the time is right to follow in the footsteps of Palm and BlackBerry into the consumer marketplace. It's also expected that current 'feature phone' customers such as those buying cameraphones and videophones, will quickly make the move to more connected devices that allow them to email, instant message and routinely post status updates, video clips and photos on social networking sites.
Microsoft entered the smartphone market back in 2002 when, together with hardware partner Orange, it launched the SPV. The partnership have gone on to sell two million Orange SPV handsets - small fry compared with sales of smartphone handsets these days, but the SPV launched in a very different and very niche market and was one of the first handsets to move away from the PDA (personal digital assistant) mold.
However, as Phones4U's spokesman outlined, people still come into the stores wanting to buy a phone, rather than an operating system.
Microsoft acknowledges that less than 10 percent of phone buyers know Windows has a phone - but it is itching to get the message out there.