Switched On: Making it different versus making a difference

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

How many apps does it take to screw in a light bulb? That was the question facing Microsoft as rival mobile operating systems backed by Apple and Google added tens of thousands of applications giving users stylus-free access to a wide range of capabilities. For a company whose co-founder trumpeted the notion of information at your fingertips, it was a bitter position. The light bulb wasn't screwed, but Microsoft looked as though it was.

Finally, though, the light bulb has turned on, and it has lit a path in the opposite direction from the guiding user interface philosophy that characterized Windows Mobile, née Windows CE, since it powered devices known as Pocket PCs. With its miniature Start menu, menu bars and icons, Windows Mobile had been designed to present a familiar interface to those used to using Windows 95. In this case, however, familiarity bred contempt. As Microsoft's Joe Belfiore repeated several times during his introduction of the new Windows Phone 7 OS, "the phone is not a PC."

But perhaps it might pass for a Zune. As many expected, the gestures, appearance and animations of Microsoft's digital media player were in retrospect a precursor for its new handset user interface, The focus is on the content with few on-screen controls; the design reflects a laudable disdain for lists. Indeed, the Zune's functionality has been integrated directly into Windows Phone, part of the Microsoft services homecoming that has included Xbox Live and Bing, with an update to Microsoft's My Phone services likely in tow.

Beyond the Zune, though, there have been several enhancements; Microsoft's team has artfully scaled Zune interface conventions to support the wide range of applications demanded of the modern smartphone. Key among the new concepts are hubs, which are live centers of interest that seamlessly branch to each other. For example, the People hub branches off to maps, Xbox Live, and social networks, and a Music and Videos hub integrates with streaming services such as Pandora instead of having to return to the device's main screen and relaunch it.

And as it has fled the desktop paradigm in its critical mobile foray, Microsoft has acted like many a convert, eager to show members of its former flock the error of their ways. In this case, the targets were Apple, which was chided for the iPhone's app-centric unitasking that requires frequent launching and in and out of different apps, and the many smartphones and feature phones that have aped the iPhone's appearance.

In contrast, the screens of Windows Phone 7 devices don't look anything like other operating systems, but they won't look much different from other Windows 7 phones. Unlike with previous versions of Windows Mobile, hardware partners will apparently not be able to add their own user interface layers on top of Microsoft's. While this has caused continuity problems in the past, it limits the differentiation an LG Windows Phone can have from a Samsung Windows Phone.

Indeed, while its approach is unique, Microsoft is touting many of the same integration messages that we've been hearing from Palm and Motorola. Those two companies, by the way, represent former licensees that Microsoft has not won back with Windows Phone 7. Other licensees, including HTC, LG and Samsung, are also supporting Android -- and Samsung has revealed its first handset with its homegrown Bada OS. Microsoft also did not attract new licensees like as Kyocera or Nokia, which was adding to the mobile OS clutter at Mobile World Congress by blending its Maemo effort with Intel's Moblin effort under a new MeeGo banner. For now, it appears that Windows Phone 7 hasn't done much to expand Microsoft's partner ecosystem.

Without a doubt, Microsoft will see some short-term lift when the first phones sporting its new operating system hit the market. If there's one thing the past three years have shown us, it's that U.S. operators love to get behind a new smartphone operating systems, leading to big campaigns behind the iPhone, T-Mobile G1, and Palm Pre. And this new Microsoft operating system is different enough to serve that role.

Beyond that, though, a different reality may set in. While the Zune was arguably later to a market dominated by others than Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's revamped user experience was not enough to change its fortunes in the media player space. And for all Microsoft's talk about the tighter integration among hardware, software, and services that it has fostered with new Windows Phones, it controls the complete experience with the Zune device.

Windows Phone Series 7 is different from its predecessors, it's different from the iPhone, and it's different from desktop Windows, But different doesn't always mean better. Microsoft's burden is to prove that its visual distinction and smooth integration outweigh the advantages of market leaders.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.