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Microsoft proclaimed Monday that it was back in the smartphone business, unveiling snazzy new handsets from HTC, LG, and Samsung that boast jumbo touch displays, speedy processors, HD video recording — and, most important, Redmond’s completely revamped mobile OS, the touch-friendly Windows Phone 7. But will its rebooted platform be enough to get Microsoft back into the game against the likes of Android and the iPhone? That’s the question of the hour.
A typically pumped-up Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s entertainingly excitable CEO, was on hand for a New York press event Monday, along with AT&T wireless chief Ralph de la Vega, whose carrier — which, if the latest reports are correct, may be about to lose its exclusive grip on the iPhone — will get the first crack at Windows Phone 7 handsets in early November, with T-Mobile soon to follow.
Among the first of the new Windows Phone 7 handsets will be a trio of handsets for AT&T, starting with the Samsung Focus, a 1GHz Snapdragon handset with a 4-inch Super AMOLED display (similar to what we’ve seen on Samsung’s Android-powered Galaxy S devices) and a 5-megapixel camera. The Focus will also be the slimmest Windows Phone in the U.S., Ballmer promised — just 9.9mm thick. Expect the Focus to arrive Nov. 8 for $199 with a new two-year contract.
Set to arrive a few weeks later on AT&T is the HTC Surround, a handset with a 3.8-inch display, a 5-megapixel camera, 16GB of on-board storage, and a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, along with — aptly enough — support for Dolby Mobile and slide-up SRS surround speakers. Interesting. As with the Focus, the Surround will sell for $199 with a two-year contract.
AT&T’s third WP7 handset will be the LG Quantum, which comes with the same basic specs as the Focus and the Surround (1GHz Snapdragon processor, 5-megapixel camera) along with a 3.5-inch display, a slide-out QWERTY keypad, 16GB of internal storage and DLNA support for sharing media with local, DLNA-compatible PCs, HDTVs and the like. Price tag: $199 (again), with a two-year contract, with the handset coming out around the same time as the Surround.
Moving on to T-Mobile, we’ve got the HTC HD7 for T-Mobile, complete with a 4.3-inch display and a kickstand, a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, a 5-megapixel auto-focus camera with a dual-LED flash and HD video recording, and 16GB of internal storage. Expect the HD7 to arrive on T-Mobile in mid-November — no pricing details just yet (although I’d be surprised if the HD7 didn’t go for $199 with a two-year contract, same as the AT&T phones).
Also due for T-Mobile: the Dell Venue Pro, a QWERTY slider with a 4.1-inch display, a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, and a 5-megapixel camera, slated to arrive “in time for the holidays.”
(I also got hands-on looks at most of the new phones, and you can check out Microsoft’s own Windows Phone site.)
While AT&T and T-Mobile are ready to help out Microsoft with its long-awaited smartphone reboot, Sprint and Verizon Wireless are standing on the sidelines for now. Microsoft admitted last month that a CDMA version of its new platform won’t be ready until the first half of 2011.
Verizon is sounding particularly cool to the idea of carrying Windows Phone 7 handsets. Its chief operating officer, Lowell McAdam, recently told CNET that it sees RIM, Google and Android as the “three major mobile operating systems” in the U.S. and that Microsoft is “not at the moment … at the forefront of our mind.”
Microsoft’s Ballmer said Windows Phone 7 devices will soon circle the globe on 60 mobile carries in 30 countries.
Of course, the spectacular failure of Microsoft’s Kin phones for Verizon earlier this year didn’t help matters much, and it’s also worth noting Verizon may be gearing up for a certain phone from Cupertino early next year, if reports from the from the New York Times and from the Wall Street Journal are true.
Still, the revamped Windows Phone 7 OS itself looks pretty impressive, or at least it did after my hands-on with a prototype device earlier this year.
Make no mistake: This isn’t your father’s Windows Mobile. Gone is the old, clunky-looking Windows Mobile interface with its thicket of tiny, desktop-like menus that required painstaking navigation with a stylus or an old four-way navigation pad. Instead, Windows Phone 7 delivers a clean, intuitive, friendly (and heavily Zune-based) touch UI with a grid of “live” tiles for your latest messages, your most-used contacts, the Web and your favorite apps.
The new platform is organized around six “hubs” of content: people (your contacts), pictures (including video and any uploaded Facebook or Windows Live snapshots), games (featuring your Xbox Live avatar and achievements), music and video (with access to your Zune Social card), marketplace (for downloading new apps) and, naturally, Office.
The clean, uncluttered look of Windows Phone 7 takes the new platform in a startlingly different (and welcome) direction from the old Windows Mobile, but there are also some key missing features. There’s no launch “cut-and-paste” support, for example — surprising, given that the new OS comes from the cradle of Microsoft Office — although Microsoft now says an update adding copy-and-paste is on tap for early next year. There’s also no Flash or even Silverlight video support in the Windows Phone browser, nor will any WP7 handsets support 3G tethering, at least for now.
Then there’s the matter of apps — or the relative lack thereof — a given for what’s essentially a brand-new mobile platform. Microsoft has already announced that some key Windows Phone 7 apps from the likes of Netflix, Twitter, Slacker, OpenTable, eBay, IMDB and Flixster (no Angry Birds, though) will be available at launch or shortly thereafter. And AT&T’s de la Vega announced Monday that Windows Phone handsets on the carrier will get an app for U-verse mobile TV streaming sometime in November. (Oh, and by the way: The Xbox 360 will at last be able to hook into the U-verse TV service, as well. Can’t wait.)
Still, Redmond clearly has a long row to hoe before its Windows Phone app store can even begin to compete with the Android Market or Apple’s gigantic iPhone App Store — and then there’s the overall battle for the smartphone market in general, which has seen Microsoft slip far behind RIM, Apple and Google.
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