Windows Phone 7: A Mobile Game-Changer?

Finally, Microsoft has shown its cards for the successor to the sputtering Windows Mobile: The Windows Phone 7 OS debuted at the Mobile World Congress this week, and it should hit store shelves by the Christmas holidays. Also, Nokia and Intel dropped their respective smartphone OS contenders -- Maemo and Moblin -- and instead said they would merge the two efforts and produce a new smartphone OS called MeeGo this spring, with devices to follow by the holidays.

Do Windows Phone 7 OS and MeeGo change the equation for users of and developers for smartphones? Yes and no.

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Upsetting the Smartphone Cart

The awkwardly named Windows Phone 7 is a radical remake of Windows Mobile, whose complex, variable interface and attempt to cram a

computer into a smartphone's small screen simply didn't work. Originally popular in some industries as a minicomputer for field forces, Windows Mobile has increasingly been displaced by the iPhone and then Android operating systems.

Microsoft hasn't shared many details of WinPhone, so I have to take the love fests emanating from fanboy sites like Engadget with a big grain of salt. But based on what Microsoft has demoed, the WinPhone is at least interesting.

WinPhone mixes a very 20-something UI heavy on messaging, games, music, and photos with standard 40-something business capabilities such as a mobile Office productivity suite and the mobile Outlook email client. And there's the mobile Internet Explorer Web browser for users of all ages.

Learning from Apple

Microsoft is clearly taking a big page from Apple's book by putting its Zune and Xbox capabilities front and center -- much as the iPhone did with its iPod functions at the 2007 launch of the iPhone. The computer capabilities of the WinPhone are hardly mentioned, a major break from Windows Mobile's microcomputer legacy. And Microsoft is emphasizing gaming, much as Apple does for its phone-less iPod Touch -- but unlike Apple, Microsoft can leverage its Xbox reputation for the WinPhone.

But Microsoft is not only copying Apple's playbook -- it's lifting some innovations from the Palm WebOS, specifically the notion of cards. Additionally, it's aping Android's execution of combined capabilities in a single "tile," in which Android lets you see all messages in one app, rather than having to switch among dedicated apps for email, SMS, Twitter, and the like.

What's hardly mentioned is the ability to run apps, an iconic capability of the iPhone that every other smartphone vendor has copied. WinPhone will run apps and tap into the Windows Mobile Marketplace, though it's unclear whether old WinMo apps will be WinPhone-compatible. It's just that Microsoft is trying to not let Windows Phone 7 look like yet another iPhone clone.

Promises and Potential

Still, at first glance, Microsoft appears to have something new on the table. Would I wait on getting an iPhone, Android smartphone, or Palm Pre because of Windows Phone 7? No. Every so-called iPhone-killer has revealed significant flaws at actual product release, and I can't imagine that Microsoft would be any different.

But I can easily see that in 2011 WinPhone might a real force within the smartphone market, threatening the innovative but low-traction Palm WebOS most, but also Google's Android OS. WinPhone appeals to the same 20-something crowd as those two operating systems, but has business credibility as well thanks to its Office and Outlook support and legacy of enterprise-class manageability and security. Neither WebOS nor Android can be used in any serious business context due to poor security and management features.

And WinPhone could emerge as a compelling alternative to the iPhone, given its 20-something hook. In the business context, WinPhone likely will be more enterprise-class in its manageability and security -- but I wonder if the 20-something UI of WinPhone will counteract its attractiveness to older business users and relegate WinPhone to a Zunish niche.

MeeGo: Should Anyone Care?

Nokia has been sleepwalking for years when it comes to smartphones. Sure, Nokia is the largest cell phone vendor in the world, but its phones aren't that smart. They're roughly equivalent to RIM's BlackBerry, with a clunky Windows 3.1-style UI, limited Web capabilities, few apps, and not much to offer for music, video, or gaming aficionados. And for business users, Nokia's manageability and security capabilities are weak.

Last year, Nokia announced it was relegating its Symbian OS to lower-end "feature phones," mobiles that offer one or two smart capabilities in a proprietary, awkward package. You don't see th

ese devices show up at all in app store market share or Web usage statistics. At best their owners use them as cheap MP3 players when they're not talking or texting, and convince themselves that the touchscreen or YouTube player makes them "smart."

A new operating system called Maemo, to be released on Nokia smartphones in the next few years, was to take the Symbian OS's place as Nokia's platform for entering the real smartphone market. An open source Linux-based platform, Maemo is very much like desktop Linux in that it uses common Linux frameworks such as the Linux kernel, Debian, and Gnome, with drivers for various Nokia devices (a series of Nokia "Internet tablets" that debuted in 2005). That was Nokia's slow-motion strategy in 2009.

Intel's Moblin Project

At the same time, Intel has been stumbling about with Moblin, an open source Linux-derived operating system, for a couple years. The idea was to create a mobile Linux that could run on a variety of devices, such as netbooks, smartphones, and vehicle entertainment systems. It's enjoyed the same success as desktop Linux -- not much.

Although there's a common Linux core to Moblin, developers quickly have to specialize their Moblin efforts to a specific driver/UI combination chosen for each device. Thus, it's less of a platform than a common technology stack approach. Much of the focus at the Moblin community -- such as it is -- has been on netbook development, not smartphones. In fact, there are no real smartphones based on Moblin, and very few Moblin netbooks (MSI has one) or Moblin apps.

Someone forget to ask why Moblin was necessary in the first place, other than to give Intel a "me too" message about being in the mobile space. And Moblin devices are just as anti-user as desktop Linux implementations. You have to know how to use sudo, for example -- just what you want on a smartphone!

MeeGo's Angle

MeeGo takes two desktop Linux-like projects that have made almost no headway after several years and combined them. Nokia's prominence in the smartphone market might make you think that MeeGo has a chance of being adopted -- and I have no doubt that Nokia will include it on some devices. But no one else so far has stepped up to MeeGo, and almost no one has embraced Moblin or Maemo either.

There's a basic unanswered question: What's the point of MeeGo that customers would care about? The slo-mo progress of these two platforms, the lack of hardware vendor or carrier buy-in, and the lack of any useful or interesting differentiation from the iPhone, BlackBerry, WebOS, Android OS, or Windows Mobile family all point to the same result: nothing.

If Nokia and Intel were serious about building a mobile platform, they would do so. Instead, they're punting to the desktop Linux community. Repackaging desktop Linux and relying on a community of hobbyists has even less chance of success in the mobile context than in the desktop context. There's too much directed innovation and experimentation among the major mobile platforms for a programmer's-toy operating system to matter.

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This article, "Do Windows Phone 7 and MeeGo change the mobile game?," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments on mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

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