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At the same time, mobile OS rivals Apple and Google, which grew up in the consumer camp, are mounting a strong challenge to Microsoft in its own backyard. The question is, after several false starts in phone OSes, does Microsoft have in Windows Phone 7 what it takes to steal the thunder from Apple iPhone and Google Android phones?
Absolutely, according to Microsoft channel partners, as long as WP7 phones deliver an intuitive user experience, strong feature set, secure and stable platform and an app store that rocks.
"Regardless of the handheld, it's about the availability of applications," says Joel Pietrantozzi, executive vice president at Client Strategy Group in Independence, Ohio, a Microsoft Gold Certified partner and Microsoft 2009 Mobility Solutions Partner of the Year. Microsoft's challenge is to close the app gap and exceed its competitors when it comes to offering applications for the enterprise, he said.
Can Windows 7 close the phone app gap?
Out of the gate, Windows Phone 7 devices come with Microsoft Office Mobile that includes mobile versions of Office productivity applications such as Word, Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and SharePoint Workspace Mobile.
Windows Phone 7 was also designed with Windows Live in mind to connect over the air to Hotmail via Exchange ActiveSync and ties into Messenger, SkyDrive and other Windows Live services. Windows Phone 7 with Windows Live enables synchronization between a WP7 and a PC and allows users to track a lost Windows Phone, lock it or remotely wipe stored data. Those are security features businesses like.
And many said Microsoft has vastly improved the Windows phone experience here.
"The phones seem pretty nice, but it seems like Microsoft is gearing them toward younger customers who are interested in social media," said Joe Dwyer, president and CTO of Propelware, a Lakeville, Minn., ISV specializing in accounting solutions. "It's definitely smoother than previous phones and an easier environment to use."
Others agree that the initial version of Windows Phone 7 targets the consumer market. It lacks critical business features such as cut and paste, nested folders and the ability to handle PDF files, for example. But they reportedly will be available by launch or within a few months with the next release of Windows Phone 7.
And that's fine, said Maulik Shah, co-founder and CTO of Mantra Information Services, a Microsoft Gold custom software application and IT consulting company in Bridgewater, N.J. When it comes to Microsoft operating systems, customers often wait for release two or three before hopping onboard.
While Mantra offers iPhone and iPad application development, Android application development, ASP.NET application development and Java application development, Shah said his existing Microsoft Mobile phone customers are eager for Windows Phone 7. That's even true for those who tried the iPhone or Android while awaiting Microsoft's next mobile OS, he said.
"Many of these customers are now saying they want to go with Windows Phone 7 as their first choice," he said.
According to Shah, the Android platform is open, and many businesses don't like open. "They prefer .NET and Java to PHP," he said.
As for the iPhone, business customers say that access to the device hardware and operating platform is too controlled. There are also fewer business apps for the iPhone.
Additionally, Apple is the only manufacturer of the iPhone and service is currently limited to one carrier, AT&T, whereas the Windows Phone 7 will be available from many device manufacturers and two service providers, AT&T and T-Mobile. (Verizon is expected to add iPhones to its roster next year.)
How well and how quickly Microsoft leverages its advantage in the enterprise by extending Windows Phone 7 to applications such as warehousing, direct store delivery, CRM and Dynamics ERP, for example, is critical to Microsoft bursting Apple and Google's bubble in the enterprise, said Pietrantozzi.
"These are areas where Microsoft can leverage its market share and where Apple and Google have none," he said. Remember, Microsoft -- unlike Apple or Google -- has always been pro business.
Windows 7 Phone: Better late than never or just too late?
The vendor's window of opportunity is no greater than 12 months, partners said.
Not too long ago, mobile phone device selection in the enterprise was a closed world: The choice was the BlackBerry or nothing. Then it expanded to include Windows Mobile in some organizations. But the sheer popularity of iPhones made companies open their doors -- and networks -- to them, observers said.
"We're already seen mobile phone vendor selection among our business customers expand to include the iPhone, first, and more recently Android phones," said Mort Rosenthal, CEO of Enterprise Mobile Inc., a Watertown, Mass.-based Microsoft Gold partner. Enterprise Mobile supports mobile device environments for the iPhone, Android, RIM, Windows Phone and Windows Mobile.
He said customers eagerly await the new Windows 7 phones. When it comes to the channel, partners insist that Microsoft must keep them a step ahead with information, training and software development kits (SDKs) and build development communities around Windows Phone 7 if they want to be successful.
"We're already seeing progress in this area," Shah said.
If the smart phone market is all about a battle of the apps, then the channel's message to Microsoft is build it and they will come. Also critical to the mix is a Windows 7 tablet.
But others said Microsoft has succeeded with Windows phones this time after several miscues. Or else.
"They have a long hill to climb because if they don't get it right this time, there's no starting over," said Propelware's Dwyer. "This is their last chance."
SearchITChannel.com assistant editor Pat Ouellette contributed to this story.
Lynn Haber writes about business and technology from Norwell, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.