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Microsoft launches Windows Phone 7 : go head-to-head with the iPhone

  • Smartphone range is software giant’s ‘last chance to catch up with rivals’
  • Apple aficionado Stephen Fry praises Microsoft operating system

Microsoft today unveiled a new range of smartphones it hopes will rival the phenomenal success of Apple’s iPhone.

The company wants its new operating system, Windows Phone 7 (WP7), to put its mobile business back in the running against not just Apple, but also Google, which makes the Android phone software, among others.

Speaking at a launch event in New York this afternoon, Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer said: ‘Everybody should be able to take a look at a Windows Phone and say it can represent me.’

Enlarge    Eye to the future: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer hosts the Windows Phone 7 launch in New York today. The firm hopes the new operating system will put its mobile business back in the running with rivals Apple and Google

Smartphone: The new devices are much closer in look and feel to Apple’s iPhone, with colourful touch-screens and ’tiles’ for easy access to email, the Web, music and other applications.

The world’s largest software company is hoping that the new phones, from handset makers Samsung, LG, HTC and Dell, will propel it back into the mobile market, which many see as the key to the future of computing.

The new phones, initially available on the T-Mobile network in the UK and on AT&T in the U.S., are much closer in look and feel to Apple’s iPhone, with colourful touch-screens and ’tiles’ for easy access to email, the Web, music and other applications.

Some analysts say they represent Microsoft’s last chance to catch up with rivals in the smartphone market who overtook it in the past few years.

‘I’ve been looking forward to this day for some time,’ Mr Ballmer said, showing off nine phone models.

Mr Ballmer, who has admitted that his company ‘missed a generation’ with its recent unpopular phone offerings, said the new phones would eventually be available from 60 mobile operators in 30 countries.

‘I’ve been looking forward to this day for some time’: Mr Ballmer showed off nine phone models as he spoke of his relief after admitting Microsoft ‘missed a generation’ with its recent unpopular phone offerings

Impressed: Ardent Apple fan Stephen Fry took the stage at the London launch event and praised the WP7

Meanwhile, at a simultaneous launch event at London’s Institute Of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Microsoft announced that WP7 will be coming on the Dell Venue Pro by Christmas.

Dell’s Venue Pro will join five other WP7 handsets – three from HTC and one each from LG and Samsung – in the UK market in the coming months.

The Venue Pro will offer something a little different to the market, with the other five all touch-screen tablet type phones, but the Venue Pro offering a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.

Technology fan – and ardent Apple aficionado – Stephen Fry was at the ICA event and even took the stage to praise the WP7.

The comedian said: ‘I am genuinely thrilled. I never thought this day would come to stand on this stage and praise Microsoft for doing something they can be proud of…

‘I have felt enormous pleasure using this phone. Will I be using my Windows Phone 7? Yes’

In the U.S. the first phone from AT&T – priced at $200 – will be available on November 8.

The AT&T network will launch Windows Phone 7 in the U.S. with three separate models, the first of which will be available from November 8. From left: Samsung Focus, LG Quantum and HTC Surround

Six Windows Phone 7 handsets will be released in the UK in the coming months, including three from HTC (one model is on the left) and the Dell Venue Pro (right), which is the only model to come with a slide-out keyboard

Microsoft has a market share of only five per cent in the global smartphone market, according to research firm Gartner, compared with nine per cent a year ago.

Google’s Android system has a 17 per cent market share, jumping from only two per cent a year ago.

The market for multi-feature phones that allow users to email, surf the web and play games, as well as have access to music and video, is set to expand massively.

Gartner expects almost 270million smartphones to be sold around the world this year, up 56 per cent from last year.

In comparison, Gartner expects only a 19 per cent increase in worldwide PC sales to 368 million units this year.

Competition: Apple’s iPhone has proved a phenomenal international success

Microsoft shares were up five cents at $24.62 on the Nasdaq this morning. AT&T shares were up 18 cents at $28.40 on the New York Stock Exchange.

But Microsoft has hurdles to overcome.

In the second quarter, Windows Mobile, Microsoft’s existing phone system, accounted for only about five per cent of smart phones sold worldwide, compared with 41 per cent for Nokia’s Symbian system, 18 per cent for Research in Motion’s BlackBerry phones, 17 per cent for Android and 14 per cent for iPhone.

The iPhone and Android are popular in part because of the tens of thousands of tiny applications – or ‘apps’ – made by outside software developers.

But those developers may not want to devote the resources to build programs for another smart phone system until it gains traction with users.

In the past, Microsoft focused narrowly on building phone software, giving handset makers and wireless carriers lots of leeway to adapt and customise their products.

In the wake of the iPhone’s phenomenal success, Microsoft has adjusted its strategy, retaining more control over the way the phones look and work.

The iPhone prompted a generation of lookalike smart phones, with screens filled with tiny square icons representing each program.

Microsoft has tried to avoid an icon-intensive copy, instead relying more on clickable words and images generated by content.

For example, a weather program might show a constantly updated snapshot of weather conditions, while photo or music libraries would be represented by a recent snapshot or the cover of the last album played on the device.

Windows Phone 7 borrows its aesthetic from the company’s Zune media players, and the entertainment ‘hub’ on the phone is based on the Zune the same way the music on the iPhone is filed under the ‘iPod’ section.

Many other Microsoft programs and services come built in on the new phones – there’s a mobile version of the Bing search engine, for example, and a games ‘hub’ that can connect to Xbox Live, Microsoft’s online gaming community.

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