Interview: Can Windows Mobile keep up with the iPhone & Android?

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Recently promoted to senior vice-president running Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business, Andy Lees is in charge of the company's mobile strategy. We asked him what MIcrosoft is going to do to retain its share of the smartphone market this year.

Is Windows Mobile 6.1 just a point release or is it a change of direction?

We were originally doing smartphones to make them a business tool but that is changing quite dramatically. Now, we have the connectivity (on phones) to allow all sorts of scenarios to take place and because of the different form factors that are available - from 12-key devices to touch screens to QWERTY to sliders - there's a much broader set of options for how you use the phone.

With Windows Mobile 6.1 we're making it easier to use, with better setup and navigation. We have better scenarios for consumers around instant messaging and texts and voice calling. We have Windows Live for mobile to get that information any time, anywhere.

We're putting Internet Explorer 6 on the phone as well. We will do that for the fall, the full fidelity and rendering and rich media rendering that you expect on IE6. One of the demonstrations we're doing at CTIA is we're showing Facebook running under IE6 on Windows Mobile - and you can actually use the apps on Facebook, like superpokes. No other mobile browser has been able to do that so far. The Safari browser on the Phone, the Android browser, they're all based on WebKit and that's only a subset of what's in Internet Explorer 6.

So you're adding features for consumers and you bought Danger. Are you trying to turn Windows Mobile into the next Sidekick?

The Danger acquisition helps us with a certain demographic, with a certain age group and a certain usage of phones. They have technology that will permeate across all the phones that we have, but they also have expertise in developing for what's known as the '17 to 25-year old communicator' - a person who spends a lot of time doing social networking, instant messaging and sharing things. In reality, it's becoming '11-years old and above for a certain set of people', so it's very broad.

So they have some base technology that will be applicable everywhere and then, for this specific demographic, we will have a targeted set of experiences because it's such an important area. We want to create a unique set of experiences for consumers at home, and work and at play - listening to music, doing photos, doing social networking, getting access to business applications, getting access to personal or business email.

We have a lot of assets to bring to bear on that. We have more than 300 million users of Windows Live. We have a billion users of PCs. We have tens of millions of users of mobile devices. If we can bring those things together, it's really powerful.

Do your relationships with mobile operators help you compete with the iPhone and Android?

One of the things that we can do slightly differently to Apple and Google is that they have what I think of as the 'over the top' scenario - they're not doing anything to enhance the mobile operator's ability to create data plans. They just want the operator to create the '$30 all you can eat' data plan - what the number is varies around the world. Our approach is to be very operator friendly, so we offer tiered services they can use to have different price plans.

Are smartphones powerful enough to have full browsers on now?

Moore's law is helping us an awful lot. You only have to look at some of the new chipsets coming out; not to single out a single manufacturer but take Qualcomm's Snapdragon. That has seven individual processors on one piece of silicon; one for Wi-Fi, one for Bluetooth, one for acceleration, sound, GPS, the main processor, it's got the radio stack and so on. In terms of volume and price, because it's an integrated chipset, Moore's law accelerates faster on phones than on PCs.

Even with IE 6 on Windows Mobile, doesn't the size of the screen mean that mobile browsing will still be a limited experience?

People want to do different things. Some people want one handed phones, some people want touch, some want larger screens, some want smaller devices. We think having a good browser experience for everything on the Web is a good catch-all. We also believe there will be a bunch of rich applications.

We're putting Silverlight on Windows Mobile and even on Nokia and having Silverlight across a range of mobile handsets enables you to develop a very rich set of apps. And with Windows Mobile you can also develop rich clients. We're going to have more diversity in the user experience - so you're not spending all your time panning and zooming, so you have an experience that's really designed to maximise what you're doing.

So with more browsing and more applications on more powerful smartphones, how can you make it easier to transfer information and keep things in sync, so you can go from one device to another seamlessly?

At PDC in the fall, we'll be talking to developers about how they can target not just mobile devices or PCs or Web apps but how those three come together and how you can create experiences that span across those in very easy ways.

These will be three main things we'll end up designing for. The on phone experience, with slightly different screen sizes, square screens and slider screens so there's some work to do but it's minor; the PC and Web experience where you have a certain size of screen, you have a mouse and keyboard so people will design the user interface for that; and then the 10-foot user interface on things such as Media Center and TVs.

The experiences you create need to flow across those. Uniquely, by having Windows Mobile and Windows Live and Vista and Xbox, we can really help to make those scenarios make sense.

So can you explain all the hints about 'sync' that Ray Ozzie was dropping at MIX 08?

You will see some dramatic things happen in the next 12 to 18 months that are going to make all these things make more sense together. We have a roadmap around Windows Mobile and a roadmap around Windows to help users and developers experience things that will just make sense across mobile, the PC, the Web and the 10-foot interface.

There's tremendous momentum we have on Windows Mobile. The operators we have relationships with represent more than a billion subscribers. Four of the top five handset makers are designing on Windows Mobile. Windows Mobile 6.1 and business tools like System Centre Mobile Device Manager are important milestones on our journey but that journey is about to explode over the next 12 to 18 months and you'll see a whole bunch of things come through.

There's a bunch of very deep technology work happening to make all of that make sense. We're not in a position to communicate that without having all the pieces in place, until the PDC. Doing Internet Explorer 6 on Windows Mobile 6.1 is a signal for the longer term about how we're going to make these experiences happen from consumer through to business - there's a bigger story here too.

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