Microsoft launched its Windows Phone 7 smartphone operating system last fall. It was an all-new system, not compatible with the previous Microsoft system, Windows Mobile (unfortunately for me -- I'm a Windows Mobile user). Windows Phone 7 is intended to compete with the iPhone (iOS), Android and Blackberry operating systems.
Most of the reviews were good, but many of those who liked Windows Phone's features and interface added something like "of course, it's too little, too late." The conventional wisdom was that the iOS and Android platforms had become so dominant, and had such a huge base of applications written for them, that there was no way for Microsoft to catch up.
It's sort of a Catch-22 situation. Having a large user base makes it more likely that developers will write software for your platform, and each new software application (or "app," in mobile phone parlance) makes your platform more versatile, more useful and easier to market to users. The trick is getting the ball rolling, building up that user base to begin with, before there's a lot of software available.
In the 1980s, in the world of personal computers, it was Microsoft which benefitted from this effect and Apple which struggled. The world of IBM PCs and the many "PC-compatibles" which used the same Microsoft operating system was larger than the closed, proprietary world of Apple Macintosh, and so software developers had more incentive to write PC software than Mac software. That rapidly-growing software base, in turn, was an asset which made it more likely that users entering the marketplace would choose the PC platform over the Mac platform.
Now, Microsoft is seeing a similar fight from the other side. It faces the struggle of trying to make Windows Phone 7 prominent enough to attract the attention of users and software developers.
Last week, Microsoft announced a deal with Finnish cell phone manufacturer Nokia. Nokia is the world's largest manufacturer of mobile phones, with 38 percent of the worldwide market in 2007. The company is better known for traditional "feature phones" than its smartphones, although it has been making efforts to get into the smartphone market. Feature phones have phone service, text messaging and perhaps a few simple applications, but aren't designed for the computer-like versatility of a smartphone. Nokia had its own smartphone software, Symbian, and was also involved with an open source operating system, MeeGo, designed for use on tablets. Last week, however, Nokia agreed that it will de-emphasize Symbian and MeeGo in favor of Windows Phone 7.
Nokia is a dominant industry in Finland, making up a huge part of its economy; Nokia alone accounts for one-quarter of Finnish exports. Some of the firm's Finnish employees weren't happy about the change. Nokia's CEO, Canadian-born Stephen Elop, is a former Microsoft executive, and some of Nokia's employees complained that Elop had sold them out to his old employer. Some even walked off the job in protest.
But the agreement is good news for Microsoft, giving Windows Phone 7 a shot in the arm which may help provide for its long-term survival. Nokia will produce a selection of new Windows Phone 7 models, and has the clout to make sure they're distributed by cell phone carriers. This makes it more likely that consumers will notice Windows Phone 7 and decide to give it a try. That, in turn, gives developers more motivation to write new apps for Windows Phone 7.
Like it or not, smartphones seem to be the way of the future. You may protest that you only want your phone to make phone calls, but your cell phone provider wants to make the extra money from selling you data, and so it's going to continue to emphasize and promote its smartphones and tablets, from any and all of the major platforms.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.