Several analysts see Microsoft's announcement of Windows Phone 7 Series this week at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, as a watershed event that very well could put the software giant back in the mobile operating system game.
However, the notable absence of much talk by Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) executives at the announcement about the current Windows Mobile 6.5, which just began shipping on new handsets in October, is perplexing to some.
The initial response, though, was overwhelmingly positive towards 7 Series, Microsoft's competitor to the iPhone and Android, due out in time for this fall's holiday sales.
"We expected Microsoft to do something dramatic. And although the new OS [Windows Phone 7 Series] wont be available until late 2010, it looks like they have exceeded expectations," Jack Gold, founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, said in a commentary.
Other pundits and analysts weighed in similarly.
"[Windows Phone 7 Series] looks very promising [but] I wonder how they're going to keep supporting the enterprise," Philippe Winthrop, until recently director of the global wireless practice at Strategy Analytics, told InternetNews.com.
The future of Windows 6.x
Microsoft has spent a lot of time and money promoting its Windows Mobile 6.x operating systems over the years as the supportable solution for smartphones used in corporate settings. The company had even been rumored to be ready to introduce a new release of 6.x -- sometimes referred to as Windows Mobile 6.6 -- at the MWC conference.
That rumored announcement never came, however.
Still, Microsoft officials claim that the 6.x line is not dead.
"We will continue to deliver the great services we introduced with WM6.5, Windows Marketplace for Mobile and Microsoft My Phone. And [we] expect to continue to introduce new devices running Windows Mobile 6.5 to the Windows Phone family in the coming months," a company spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.
One outstanding question is whether corporate customers and partners with 6.x-based applications will be able to run those apps on 7 Series phones and, failing that, whether they will be able to easily port them to the new platform.
While the answer to that is still unknown, Microsoft is likely to provide at least some details next month at its MIX 2010 conference in Las Vegas, which has a range of sessions dedicated to Windows Phones.
A Microsoft spokesperson said its OEMs are seeing increased demand in emerging markets for smartphones with less demanding hardware components and lower price points. "Businesses want cost effective software to build vertical solutions and consumers want a lower cost alternative for work and play," she said. "We created the Windows Phone 6 Starter Edition SKU to address these customer and partner needs.
In a related announcement, BSquare (NASDAQ: BSQR) announced Tuesday it is readying a mobile developers kit called Windows Phone 6 Starter Edition.
One well-known blogger attending MWC, Long Zheng, author of the "Istartedsomething" blog, said he learned during an interview with Microsoft at the event that the company sees the older operating system as co-existing with 7 Series for now.
"Going forward, Windows Mobile 6.5 (and Windows Mobile 6.5.3) will be rebranded as Windows Phones Classic, and presumably the devices as Windows Phones Classic Series," he added.
At least one analyst told InternetNews.com that another rev or two of Windows Mobile 6.x may be necessary in order to meet existing customers' needs.
"New technology typically goes through a testing cycle after a new platform is released. That cycle wont start until the platform is finalized. Typically large roll outs, except for co-funded early adopter accounts, will likely not move to the new platform for a year after that," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.
Whatever happens, however, the analysts all said basically the same thing: the race is just starting, not ending.
"The latter half of this year the market is going to get very busy and very crowded," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com.
"The game is anything but over," King added.