After Fumble, Microsoft Redoes Phone Software

Mobile phone software from Microsoft has long resembled an underpowered version of its Windows desktop software. Users never embraced its bland interface, sluggish response time and businesslike menus that required lots of clicking to perform tasks.

Microsoft’s new smartphone software, Windows Phone 7 Series, turns a phone into something akin to an electronic butler that tries to anticipate the user’s needs. It automatically taps into the carrier’s data network to pick up appointments, photos and messages from friends, and it presents all this information in a slick fashion that resembles a Zune music player more than a personal computer.

To build it required a humbling admission by Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker: its clunky Windows Mobile architecture had failed in the marketplace, and the company needed to start over from scratch if it had any hope of competing against Apple and its iPhone.

“To be entirely candid, the iPhone opened our eyes as to some things that needed to be done that were not in our plan,” said Terry Myerson, the vice president in charge of Windows Phone engineering. “Some execution had really gone astray.”

Whether Microsoft’s new software truly challenges Apple or ends up a barely noticed niche player, like the Zune to Apple’s iPod, remains to be seen. Windows Phone 7 is still in final development, and the first phones running the software will not be in stores until late this year.

But for Microsoft, a lot is at stake. its share in the smartphone software market fell to 8.7 percent last year from 11.8 percent, according to the research firm Gartner. Sales of smartphones running other software platforms are surging. By 2012, analysts expect more smartphones than PCs will be sold.

To create Windows Phone 7, Microsoft overhauled its phone software division two years ago. Underperformers in the group were sent to work elsewhere in the company, while some of Microsoft’s top talents were brought to the phone business.

In addition, Microsoft hired people from companies like Nike and Procter & Gamble who could bring different perspectives.

Microsoft pulled mr. Myerson away from his work on Exchange, the company’s corporate e-mail and communications software. mr. Myerson said he chose to take on “an impossible mission” rather than continuing to work on a sure winner.

“I had about a day to think about it, and it was pretty clear to me that this was the right thing for the company,” he said.

As mr. Myerson put it, Microsoft had to bring more talented “plumbers and painters” to the mobile software group. This meant finding people who could design on schedule and others who could add some sizzle to its software, long criticized as dated and painfully tough to use.

“This is a people business,” mr. Myerson said. “We are managing artists. We are not pouring steel.”

One of the top “painters” at the company is Joe Belfiore, who has shepherded projects like Windows XP, Windows Media Center and the Zune. mr. Belfiore is portrayed by his co-workers as a user interface whiz.

When Microsoft provided the first look at Windows Phone 7 Series in February at a mobile phone industry conference in Barcelona, Spain, Microsoft’s chief executive, Steven A. Ballmer, ceded the spotlight to mr. Belfiore for the grand unveiling.

In an interview after the news conference, mr. Belfiore remained in a state of agitated excitement. He checked the Internet for immediate feedback and talked in sweeping terms about “trying to move beyond the PC metaphor of icons on a desktop.”

Instead of icons, Microsoft has “tiles,” which are actively updated and bigger than normal icons. the People tile, for example, houses a person’s contacts and will update on its own to show new photos that the contacts have posted to Facebook.

Mr. Belfiore also extolled the virtues of “hubs,” which combine similar themed functions in one place. the Pictures hub, for instance, brings in photos from social networking sites, those taken with the phone and those uploaded from a computer.

While the tile and hub features give Microsoft’s software a unique feel, they failed to impress some at the Barcelona event.

“There was no ‘wow’ effect,” said Bjorn Behrendt, the chief executive of Hiogi, a mobile technology start-up. “It didn’t strike me as being innovative.”

The biggest compliments for the software came from business professionals who were impressed with the interfaces that Microsoft built to link to its corporate software products like Outlook, Office and SharePoint.

“I think they have taken the smartphone an extra step that Apple can’t,” said Dave Elmendorf, a director at the BT Group.

With Windows Phone, Microsoft is also taking a more active role in handset designs.

In the past, the company followed its PC model and simply offered its mobile software to handset makers, which would do as they saw fit with the product. As a result, Windows phones often lacked the polish and performance of more integrated devices.

This time around, Microsoft worked closely with the chip maker Qualcomm. In addition, Microsoft is requiring phone makers to keep basic elements of its user interface, including a physical button to start Web searches on Bing.

“The biggest strategic decision we had to make was taking accountability for the user experience,” mr. Myerson said. Microsoft’s hands-on approach has prompted pushback from some handset makers, including Acer.

“It is very difficult to do customization, and, in our opinion, customization is what you need when you think about mobile phones,” said Gianfranco Lanci, chief of Acer, a PC maker and an aspiring smartphone player.

After Fumble, Microsoft Redoes Phone Software


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