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A humbled Microsoft prepares to boot up Windows Phone 7

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks at the Mobile World Congress in February 2010.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks at the Mobile World Congress in February 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft's complete do-over of a mobile operating system
  • CEO Steve Ballmer will announce hardware and carrier partners today
  • Company purchased new facilities, hired managers and reorganized design department
  • "Success of the iPhone certainly had an impact on the industry," employee says
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(WIRED) -- Joe Belfiore, Microsoft's man in charge of mobile, has a favorite word when he talks about Windows Phone 7: "holistic." The company's mobile infrastructure underwent a sea change to make an operating system based on what users want, which required retooling its entire phone manufacturing and design strategy.

It even involved building robots to make sure handsets work like you expect them to.

"We're taking responsibility holistically for the product," Belfiore said. "It's a very human-centric way of thinking about it. A real person is going to pick up a phone in their hand, choose one, buy it, leave the store, configure it and live with it for two years. That's determined by the hardware, software, application and services. We're trying to think about all those parts such that the human experience is great."

Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft's complete do-over of a mobile operating system after the earlier Windows Mobile plummeted in market share and popularity in the wake of Apple's consumer-savvy iPhone and Google's prolific Android devices.

Referred to as "73 by the engineers developing the OS, the project has been in the works since December 2008, when Microsoft decided to scrap all of its efforts on Windows Mobile 7, which would have been an iteration of the older operating system largely focused on business customers.

At a New York press conference today, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will announce hardware and carrier partners who will be supporting the operating system when the first Windows Phone 7 smartphones finally ship November. AT&T will be speaking at the event as well, suggesting that the telecom company will be among the initial carriers offering the OS.

In exclusive interviews with Wired.com, Microsoft staff spoke about the radical transformation in mobile strategy that was necessary to make Windows Phone 7 possible. The company had to purchase brand new lab facilities, hire and shuffle around top managers and reorganize its entire design department to rethink mobile.

Belfiore explained that years ago with Windows Mobile, the process was such that a mobile carrier and manufacturer would determine the features they wanted on a phone, and then they'd issue a list of specific instructions to OS makers such as Microsoft. This M.O. led to the creation of Windows Mobile, which has been knocked by critics (and even some of Microsoft's own designers) for being overloaded with features and unfriendly to users.

"It was trying to put too much functionality in front of the user at one time as it could, and it resulted in an experience that was a little cluttered and overwhelming for taste for a lot of people today," said Bill Flora, a design director at Microsoft. "It felt computerey."

However, after Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs rewrote the rules of the wireless game. He slyly negotiated an arrangement with AT&T to carry the iPhone without even showing the carrier the phone. As a result, Apple was able to tightly control the design of the iPhone's OS and hardware to deliver a mobile experience tailored for the customer to enjoy rather than the carrier.

In the aftermath of the iPhone, manufacturers have been racing to deliver competitive smartphones tailored to quality consumer experiences. And Microsoft acknowledges that Windows Phone 7 is benefiting from this paradigm shift.

Joe Belfiore, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Windows Phone Program Management.
Joe Belfiore, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Windows Phone Program Management.

"The success of the iPhone certainly had an impact on the industry and an impact on us," Belfiore said. "And we said there were a lot of things we could do to deliver a solution that's different from the iPhone but have some of its benefits."

Now, the game is different. Instead of modifying the skin of a mobile OS to cater to a manufacturer's demands, Microsoft is telling the manufacturers what they have to do if they want to support Windows Phone 7.

The company issues each manufacturer a strict list of elements that a phone must have in order to run Windows Phone 7 -- three physical buttons and a multitouch screen -- and each feature undergoes rigid testing by robots and programs designed by Microsoft. If a smartphone fails any of the tests -- for example, if a touchscreen is too insensitive in response to a diagonal swipe -- then Microsoft tells the manufacturer to change the hardware.

Microsoft has independently written the OS into a tile-based interface incorporating elements of the Zune media player, Xbox Live gaming, social networking, photography and other elements. These experiences are separated into categories called "Hubs" -- an interface dramatically different from Apple's iPhone app experience.

"We'll see how the market reacts and how consumers react because it's a very different user interface," said Michael Gartenberg, an industry analyst at Gartner, in a previous interview with Wired.com. "They're going to have to justify the differentiation for consumers and developers, and I think there's going to be a longer story that needs to be told here."

Today Microsoft will be telling more of that story, as the public will finally get to see the first official devices powered by the brand new Windows Phone 7 OS. Stay tuned for the news, and more in-depth coverage on Windows Phone 7, here at Gadget Lab.

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Copyright 2011 Wired.com.

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