7 Nettlesome Questions About Windows Phone 7

Windows Phone 7 smartphones arrived in the U.S. Monday, and Microsoft is now officially back on the comeback trail and looking to erase the recent history of its foundering mobile business. But despite positive early reviews, Windows Phone 7 may face a difficult climb in the crowded U.S. mobile market, where Apple and Google are gobbling the lion's share of attention.

Here CRN examines seven questions about Windows Phone 7 that have the potential to slow Microsoft's march back into mobile industry relevance.

1. Can Windows Phone 7 gain momentum without Verizon?

Microsoft says a CDMA version of Windows Phone 7 is coming in the first quarter of 2011. In the meantime, customers of the nation's largest carrier will only be able to experience Windows Phone 7 vicariously, through their GSM device-toting friends on AT&T and T-Mobile.

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Of greater concern to Microsoft is Verizon's ambiguous stance on Windows Phone 7 devices. In September, Verizon officials said the carrier "will probably" release a Windows Phone 7 device in 2011. But last month, Verizon President and COO Lowell McAdam told Cnet that Microsoft isn't currently factoring in his company's plans. "Microsoft is not at the forefront of our mind," McAdam said in a Q&A with Cnet.

Another factor is that Verizon and Google have a pretty good thing going with Android, and Verizon might be hesitant to throw cold water on that lovefest by talking about Windows Phone 7. And there's always the possibility that Verizon may still be silently simmering over the Microsoft Kin debacle and lamenting the front-row seat it had as the exclusive carrier for the devices.

2. Will developers get rich from Windows Phone 7?

Windows Mobile developers weren't thrilled by Microsoft hitting the reset button and starting over with Windows Phone 7, but Microsoft does have the advantage of a giant developer army that already has the skills to build Windows Phone 7 apps. The question is, will developers find it worth their while from a financial standpoint? And can Microsoft at least emulate some of the unforeseen riches that many App Store developers have happily stumbled into?

It's an apples-and-oranges comparison seeing as how Microsoft is emphasizing quality over quantity in its Windows Phone Marketplace, which currently has around 2,000 apps. Still, while Apple gloats at regular intervals about the number of App Store listings, much of the buzz around the App Store has come from developers who've grown rich from their creations.

Microsoft has the industry's deepest well of application development expertise, so it would be foolish to suggest that it's incapable of building a thriving mobile application store. However, Microsoft is going to have to adapt quickly to the proclivities of the mobile space, and its recent track record doesn't suggest it'll be able to do so easily.

Next: How Will Windows Phone 7 Fare Against iPhone, Android?

3. How Will Windows Phone 7 Fare Against iPhone, Android?

AT&T is Microsoft's "premier partner" for Windows Phone 7 and will have three smartphones on the market this holiday season. But AT&T also sells the iPhone and Android smartphones from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and Sony. That's some pretty stiff competition for a newcomer OS. In a side-by-side comparison, will AT&T customers opt for Windows Phone 7 when they're choosing a new device?

Microsoft has painstakingly designed Windows Phone 7 as an OS that's unique from competing offerings, and in the sea of sameness of today's mobile market that could play in its favor. But on AT&T, Windows Phone 7 is going up against the iPhone 4, which despite its well publicized flaws remains at the top of many mobile device users' wish lists.

On T-Mobile, which focuses heavily on Android devices, Windows Phone 7 could also have a tough time getting noticed, says Allen Nogee, an analyst with In-Stat in Scottsdale, Ariz."T-Mobile has put its Android phones front and center, and it's not likely that the Windows Phone 7 will change that," he said.

4. Will people care about the missing features?

Much has been made about Windows Phone 7's lack of copy and paste, Adobe Flash support, and full multitasking capability. These features are coming at some point in the near future, but there's still a sense that Windows Phone is arriving in an incomplete state.

Some Microsoft partners find it troubling that the Internet Explorer Mobile browser in Windows Phone 7 doesn't support Silverlight or HTML5. "Probably the most disappointing part of the phone is the browser, which is a bit behind Apple’s mobile Safari and Android’s implementation of Webkit in terms of performance and support of the content that users are after," said Dave Meeker, director of emerging technology at Roundarch, a user experience and technology design firm.

Apple didn't add multitasking and copy and paste to the iPhone until two years after its launch. Of course, the iPhone's missing features didn't matter because the device blew away every other mobile device on the market when it launched. That's not the position Microsoft finds itself in with Windows Phone 7.

5. Windows Phone 7: one device to rule them all?

Microsoft designed Windows Phone 7 to fit the needs of both consumers and business users. The business side of this ambitious plan should be fairly straightforward since Microsoft has previously served this market with Windows Mobile. The consumer side is a much different story, however.

Microsoft's biggest consumer success to date is the Xbox, and this is featured prominently in Windows Phone 7. Microsoft is also giving users the ability to synchronize the photos and video they create with their devices in the cloud, and it's also starting to trace the value proposition for the cloud in its new Windows Live advertising campaign.

Will this be enough to capture the hearts and minds of mobile users who don't care about Sharepoint and Exchange? Some industry watchers believe Windows Phone 7 will soon start eating away at Research In Motion's Blackberry market share, but the iPhone and Android will present a far more difficult challenge.

Next: Windows Phone 7 And Tablets

6. Could Windows Phone 7 force a change of heart on tablets?

Let's say Windows Phone 7 takes the mobile industry by storm and blows away Microsoft's most optimistic sales expectations. Would this cause Microsoft to re-evaluate its stance on Windows 7 tablets?

Microsoft has been steadfast in its insistence that Windows 7 is its OS of choice for tablets, even though many partners would rather see the software giant use Windows Phone 7. Microsoft partners see this as another example of Microsoft leading with a sales and engineering mentality as opposed to one that puts design at the forefront.

Microsoft sees tablets as a chance to show Windows 7's viability in non-PC form factors. That's understandable, but if Windows 7 tablets don’t sell, and Apple continues to preen over its gaudy iPad sales figures, Microsoft may have to revisit its position on Windows Phone 7.

7. Has Microsoft learned from its mobile missteps?

Microsoft jettisoned the Windows Mobile past and started over with Windows Phone 7, so clearly, there have been tough lessons learned within the hallways of Redmond. And yet, one of Microsoft's first television commercials for Windows Phone 7, which highlights obnoxious mobile users, raises the question of whether Microsoft will ever really "get it" in mobile.

The commercial is a hilarious, well produced piece of advertising that uses the old formula of presenting a problem and then showing how Windows Phone 7 solves it. Only problem is, Microsoft doesn't really show how Windows Phone 7 devices are better, or how they'll prevent people from engaging in the same sort of ignorant, antisocial behavior they exhibit while using other smartphones.

Are the ads funny? You bet. Will they build positive brand awareness for Microsoft? Probably. However, given the precarious state of Microsoft's mobile business, does the company have the luxury of ridicule? When it's aimed at the target audience for the product Microsoft is trying to sell, that's a tough one to answer.