Can Microsoft really beat the iPhone?

It’s not often you’ll feel sorry for Microsoft. But even the most ardent Windows-haters must be able to spare a little sympathy for the software giant’s repeated forays and limited success in the world of mobile phones.

You could argue that the original SPV phone – which was released in 2002 and one of the first handsets to run a Microsoft mobile operating system – set the tone for the company’s mobile phone efforts for years to come.

The SPV was slow, buggy, and had a number of exceptionally annoying quirks. For instance, each time you switched it off, it would forget all the words you’d taught the predictive text system. Grrr.

The rise of smartphones

Back then, of course, smartphones were nothing compared to what they are now. And having started out poorly, Microsoft did little more than watch from the sidelines while other mobile phone platforms rose to dominance.

BlackBerry took the business world by storm, with its security-conscious, email-focused approach. Apple blazed a trail with its iPhone, which continues to sell out (just try and buy the latest model).

And you could almost hear the gnashing of teeth from Microsoft when Android – the mobile platform from big rival Google – overtook all competitors earlier this year to become the most popular smartphone platform of all.

Now Microsoft fights back?

Of course, this fight has taken place against a backdrop of greater smartphone adoption, which is causing a fundamental change in how we use the internet. A significant proportion of internet and email use now takes place on the move – giving the most popular smartphone platforms significant influence and power.

Microsoft certainly wants some of that action. And with the latest version of its operating systems for mobile phones, it might just have a chance.

Called Windows Phone 7 (not the old ‘Windows Mobile’), this major update to the company’s mobile platform was released towards the end of last year. In fact, there’s another update due soon too.

And you know what? Finally, Microsoft has a mobile platform that compares well to Android and Apple. Windows Phone 7 adopted a new look and feel, called the Metro interface. And it’s lovely.

It uses chunky blocks of colour and text, to show your apps. It displays key information on the home screen, so you don’t have to open an app to see it. There’s a cracking on-screen keyboard that’s accurate and fast to type on, and everything hangs together really well.

Reviews suggest it’s responsive and snappy to use, with an overall user experience that measures up well. The web browser and email functions are solid – in fact, Apple fans, you might be in for a surprise.

And – of course – Microsoft has tried to integrate the phone closely into its other business software. Microsoft Office is most obvious. For instance, you can view and edit Microsoft Word documents on your handset. That’s bound to appeal to business users.

It’s good, but does that matter?

All things being equal, Windows Phone is a very credible competitor to Apple, Android and the rest. But all things are not equal, so no matter how good Windows Phone is, can it ever challenge the well-established competition out there?

Here’s the problem. If you want a smartphone that just works, you’ll buy an iPhone. It’s by far and away the best-known smartphone out there, and for people who don’t want to explore the intimate workings of their handset, it’s ideal.

Alternatively, if you haven’t bought into Apple’s way of doing things, Android is an excellent alternative. Because it’s an open source system, there are lots of devices to choose from. And because Google doesn’t put tight controls on who can develop apps, you can find good quality, free apps to do almost anything.

Windows Phone has had low adoption, which means fewer apps and fewer people developing apps. What’s more, people using Android or Apple phones are perhaps unlikely to switch, because they’ve already invested time and money in moving their data and apps to that platform.

Too little, too late?

Even if you’ve never wished Microsoft success, now might be a good time to root for the IT giant. Increased competition on the smartphone scene can only drive up quality and push prices down.

But in truth, the company may be too late to the party. It’s no good turning up with a good option if everyone has already made their choice. Sorry, Microsoft – if you’d wheeled out Windows Phone 7 two years ago then things could be very different.

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Jonathan Edwards is MD and founder of Integral IT, a preferred IT support partner to many UK businesses. Jonathan has been working in the IT support industry since 1996 and is a Microsoft Certified Professional. He is actively involved with all aspects of client relationships and ensures Integral's IT support is of the highest quality possible.