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New smartphone launches force buyers to bet

When Microsoft introduced its Windows Phone 7 operating system on Monday, it couldn't make its traditional sales pitch to consumers: We're Microsoft, this product has "Windows" in its name, get on board now!

Instead, it had to ask something different: Trust us to build this platform.

You've heard that before from other companies. Smartphones may be the most interesting product of the electronics industry, but the flip side of that excitement is uncertainty. Buying into a new phone platform amounts to placing an expensive bet, equal to the cost of the phone, plus the cost of its required service plan, plus the cost of any apps you buy -- plus the opportunity cost of not being able to switch to a competing phone for the next two years.

Sometimes the bet pays off. Apple had never built a phone before launching the iPhone in 2007, but that venture has succeeded beyond any sane expectation. Google's Android operating system didn't reach the market until the iPhone had secured an enormous head start, but it's on its way to passing Apple.

Sometimes a new phone venture sinks almost instantly, like Microsoft's Kin, which the company axed less than two months after it arrived in stores. Other platforms don't crumble until years of success tempt their developers to slack off. Palm's defunct Palm OS and Microsoft's now-abandoned Windows Mobile come to mind.

And then there are the cases that leave buyers wondering if they bet on the wrong contender.

Palm's webOS looked like a breakthrough when it debuted on its Pre smartphone two summers ago. Less than a year later, without any significant hardware upgrades and with support stalled from third-party software developers, Palm's project appeared to be circling the drain. Now that HP has bought the company, its prospects look brighter, but only if HP's financial backing helps it ship a reinvigorated lineup of phones that sell well enough to draw renewed interest from programmers.

With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft seems to be off to a better start than Palm in some important ways. It has lined up the likes of Dell, HTC, LG and Samsung to build devices running this software, to be sold by AT&T and T-Mobile, thereby avoiding Palm's mistake of introducing one phone on one carrier.

But WP7's software selection seems even more up in the air than Palm's did when the Pre launched. At its launch event in New York on Monday, it showed off programs from such name-brand sources as Twitter, eBay, Netflix, EA, Slacker and Amazon's IMDB; others are on the way, such as Foursquare's upcoming app. And one of the most important mobile applications, Facebook, comes built into Windows Phone 7.

(The companies that rush to ship software for new phones face risks of their own. Yelp shipped an app for webOS early on but now seems to have come down with a case of developer's remorse.)

But think about all the names we haven't heard from yet: Evernote, Dropbox, Yelp, OpenTable and Pandora, to name a few. Quantity counts, as well, and here Microsoft will inevitably start out light-years behind the iPhone and Android. Microsoft may brag about "thousands" of apps in the works, but I would be surprised if a four-digit number of apps were available when the first WP7 phone, AT&T's Samsung Focus, ships Nov. 8.

For Windows Phone 7 to secure a viable share of the market, Microsoft will have to work with the tenacity of a Chilean miner at getting developers to spend time writing apps for it -- presumably, after they've already put in time on separate iPhone and Android programs.

Windows Phone 7 buyers also have to trust that the company will keep plugging away at its own software, adding such missing features as copy and paste (promised for early next year), visual voicemail, video conferencing and voice text input.

For all of those obstacles, however, Windows Phone 7 seems a safer bet than this season's other product launch: the PlayBook tablet computer coming from Research In Motion. That device represents RIM's first venture into a new category of hardware, and it doesn't run on the same operating system as RIM's BlackBerry phones.

Windows Phone 7 has one other thing going for it: Microsoft doesn't have any other options left. Either this platform succeeds, or the company gets wiped off the map in the most exciting part of the computer industry.

This post is a draft of this weekend's column, and you can help make it better. What factors do you consider when deciding whether to invest in a new computing platform? What warning signs do you watch out for? How long will you wait to judge a new smartphone operating system a success?

By Rob Pegoraro  | October 14, 2010; 5:29 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture, Mobile  
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I don't give it that much thought. When there is a platform and support in the way of apps sufficient for my purposes, I go with it. In my case it was the iPhone.

I use the analogy of e-books. I use the Kindle. I realize it is the only platform for Amazon e-books, but again I don't think about it too much. I have reading to do.

Another thing is, I don't want to play with keeping my phone running, bloatware, etc. That is another reason I like the iOS over Android. At this stage of my life, I want to get work done, and think productivity tools should be a net positive to my life. You might say is is a Mac versus Windows computer analogy, but I still use Windows because of the greater collection of software ("apps").

Perhaps I should be putting more thought into it. When I bought the iPhone it was really the only game in town for apps. (No pun intended). If Android stabilizes, I could switch. Same with the Microsoft mobile platform.

In your article I would use "operating system" or "platform" and stick with it. I find using the two interchangeably confusing. I think platform may be more foreign to most folks.

Posted by: TheChileanPresidentIsMuchBetterRespondingToDisastersThanObama | October 14, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

I have Windows Mobile 6.1 on my current smartphone.

Saturday, I pick up a Blackberry Torch. I gave MS one shot, not doing it again.

Posted by: gbooksdc | October 14, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Please point me to all these amazing apps on the Android Market. When I look, all I see is garbage with some of the dumbest names I've ever heard. "Seesmic" Really?

Posted by: hoos3014 | October 14, 2010 11:29 PM | Report abuse

You asked where the apps were, and implied that not having apps would be a detriment. You mentioned Evernote and Dropbox.

Apps fill in gaps that an OS does not perform. So if you want to take notes, iOS does not have that, so you NEED Evernote. If you want to share files, you NEED dropbox, because iOS does not do that. If you want to find directions, you NEED Google Maps.

Part of the beauty of WP7 is that many of those apps are built into the OS.

So, you want to share files, you have MS Sharepoint built in.
So, you want to take notes, you have MS Onenote built in.
So, you want directions, you have Bing Maps built in.

With WP7, you do not need to search for a lot of apps to fill in the missing pieces because the functionality is built in.

Posted by: george-king | October 15, 2010 3:32 AM | Report abuse

I wonder why a wealthy company like Microsoft worries if enough developers will write apps for its platform. Given that MS has too much at stake with WP7 and tens of billions in its coffers, can it not hire a few hundred programmers to create applications on a full-time basis?

And even though Apple and Android boast about 10s of thousands of apps, my feeling is that only a few hundred actually matter, rest don't really appeal to large number of users.

Posted by: n123 | October 15, 2010 6:02 AM | Report abuse

I'm very happy with my HTC Evo 4g, an Android phone with Sprint service.

I'm an Apple guy, with everything else I own being Apple. But I got sick of the Iphone dropping calls, not having turn by turn nav, etc.

The turn by turn nav system is far better than what I had on the iphone. And Sprint coverage is considerably better than ATT, particularly in big cities.

The Android App market is pretty good. The only complaint I have with it is often the descriptions of the Apps are poorly written. Apple seems to require a more complete description of what the app actually is. In the Android app market a lot of developers seem to assume you speak developer language and never get around to actually describing what their product actually does.

Posted by: TheHillman | October 15, 2010 6:51 AM | Report abuse

Well I have both an ipad and the epic 4g and I like both of them alot. I previously had a palm pre but I did not like the lack of attention the developers spent on the operating system so it was an over priced regular phone. If nobody pays attention to the software then the developers both third party and the main developers will move on to another operating system.

What I like iOS and Android is that the developers are constantly trying to upgrade the software and spend time trying to develop apps for the software.

I hope Windows Phone 7 suceeds because more competition is always better but I've learned to wait a while to see if the operating system catches on with the general public first before spending the money on the phone/operating system otherwise you will be stuck with a phone that is bascially abandoned by the public and you will not be getting your money worth for a smart phone.

To justify the cost of a smart phone its operating system should be in constatnt development with regards to upgrades and apps if it doesnt the cost is not justified and a person might as well have a regular cell phone.

Posted by: ksburney1914 | October 15, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Still waiting for an affordable smartphone without a mandatory service contract. Maybe not in my lifetime? :-)

Posted by: Miles_Standish_Proud | October 15, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Windows phones are for teenage girls and born losers.

Posted by: mobilemavy | October 15, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Miles; it's not the phone or the apps, it's those combined with the contract and the mandatory plan/rates that make/break the purchase decision. So I sit with my dumb prepaid minutes phone that's running me about 100.00 per YEAR with no taxes/fees etc. until I see some of this shake-out.

Posted by: tws1372 | October 15, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I used to have Windows phones. Loved the way they synched up with Outlook.

But with the world of Apps, MS is way out of their league. Even for the 6.1 and 6.5 operating systems, they were pitiful.

I just got a BB Storm 2, and love it. I needed a world access phone, and it was of only 2 that Verizon Wireless had.

I would have loved the Android, but no world phones there yet.

Posted by: kernunnos1367 | October 15, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

What are the chances of Symbian making a mark on the smartphone world? Is it too late? Is all hope lost? I liked Nokia phones but apps make the smartphone and there are not that many available for Symbian.

If all hope is lost, can we convince Nokia to abandon Symbian and start using Android OS?

Posted by: midanae | October 15, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

@george-king: You made a very insightful post there. I agree completely. Well said.

As for when I invest in a new operating system, it's all based on trust. I trust Microsoft as a whole, so I trust they've done an exceptional job with WP7. I will invest in it. I think Microsoft has really proven their quality lately - with the release of Windows 7. I'm currently the owner of a Mac with Snow Leopard and a laptop with Windows 7. In my opinion, Windows 7 outperforms Snow Leopard.

I also think WP7 will be a strong smart phone competitor right from its launch.

Posted by: se_coupe | October 15, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

I don't know why these guys are saying that there's no maps or turn-by-turn navi on the iPhone. I just took my new (no apps yet) iPhone4 on a 2000 mile trip and left my atlas at home. Whether it was Chicago's South Side or the back roads of Indiana, I had no problems getting where I was going. I used both map-view and turn-by-turn and never had a doubt about where I was, where I was going or how far I had to go. 4 Stars!

Posted by: jdiyef | October 15, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

So Windows Phone 7 is “thereby avoiding Palm’s mistake of introducing one phone on one carrier”? That strategy seems to have worked out pretty well for the iPhone. You never know. Though I do agree that HPalm has been inexplicably sitting on their collective hands since Pixi.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | October 18, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

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