Microsoft Windows Phone 7 Swings Hard and Connects

Last Updated Oct 11, 2010 12:41 PM EDT

It's too early to tell yet whether Microsoft's (MSFT) new mobile entry will be a hit, but the Windows Phone 7 product launch today was a strong start. Aside from some impressive features, Microsoft has learned some important lessons from past failures -- and from competitors Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) -- and has focused on simplicity both of use and of marketing message to try and woo users.

At some points, Microsoft seemed to try and emulate Apple (AAPL). For example, CEO Steve Ballmer emphasized two messages: "always delightful" and "wonderful mine." Actually, it was just an attempt to use basic marketing, with a resonant phrase and repetition. Trying to frame the product experience you want to deliver is important, but Microsoft stumbled a bit. It came out a little stilted, unlike the "magical" refrain that Apple hits with the iPhone and iPad, which sounds silly when you think about it but operates powerfully on the emotions of many people.

And still, it wasn't a flop because Microsoft managed to create a cohesive differentiation between Windows Phone 7 and both Apple's iOS and Google (GOOG) Android. On one hand, Microsoft subtly underscored that iPhone users have to do things Apple's way. That not only includes users, but carriers, and part of Microsoft's pitch was to them. For example, the company's U.S. launch partner, AT&T (T), announced its Uverse Mobile app for watching television. Unlike the iPhone version, however, consumers needn't be Uverse customers at home. Because Microsoft isn't trying to control all revenue streams, AT&T could offer a mobile-only subscription directly. This will likely be an enticement for bigger carriers with service offerings to push Microsoft over Apple.

Microsoft seems to have aimed for consumers who like Apple styling but who welcome a bit more control themselves, which describes many Android users. That's where "always delightful" comes in. Ballmer emphasized how the software experience is the same from phone to phone, rather than being at the mercy of the version of Android a given manufacturer chose.

The user experience, at least over a video link, was impressive. Text entry was really fast and smart. Contextual menus give a uniformity in approaching different tasks. Although there was one flub due to network congestion (thank you, AT&T), during his demo, Microsoft vice-president Joe Belfiore did a voice-based search for an airline flight. Cloud services parsed the voice to extract the text and then dug up the information we wanted.

Microsoft has also been smart to connect to services from other companies. For example, when Belfiore looked at a message with a dinner invitation from Ballmer, he was able to compare the date and time to work and personal calendars on two different systems. Users also have access to PowerPoint and other Office apps.

Nine phones -- from LG, Samsung, HTC, and Dell (DELL) -- will ship November 8. Vendors are providing some significant differentiation in their devices. For example, Dell has a ruggedized model for business use. HTC has a model with a big screen. Some devices focus on showing video while others are meant for a gaming market. Windows Phone 7 devices will be available from 60 carriers across 30 countries. AT&T's magic price seems to be $199.99 (presumably with a service contract).

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.