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Microsoft makes a big grab for smartphone customers

Heather Kelly, CNN
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveils Windows Phone 8 on Monday in San Francisco.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveils Windows Phone 8 on Monday in San Francisco.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Microsoft will officially unveil its new Windows Phone 8 operating system on Monday
  • The company only accounts for a sliver of the smartphone market
  • The launch is part of a marketing push which includes Windows 8 and the Surface tablet
  • Microsoft is going up against Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems

(CNN) -- Microsoft is going all out in an attempt to push customers to its new Windows Phone 8 operating system. All it has to do is convince people the platform is better than Google's Android and Apple's iOS. Easy, right?

The company officially launched the latest version of its smartphone OS on Monday in San Francisco. The press event is part of a larger marketing blitz by Microsoft, which started last week with the rollout of its new Windows 8 OS for PCs and tablets, and its new Surface tablet, which aims to take on the iPad.

Soon, you won't be able open a magazine or watch TV without seeing an ad for the new Windows products, CEO Steve Ballmer said.

Big tech launches like these are piling up in the weeks leading up to the holiday shopping season. Last week, Apple announced its new iPad Mini, a fourth-generation iPad and a refreshed line of laptop and desktop computers.

Windows 8 enters the marketplace

Google also announced news on Monday on its blog, including a new Nexus 4 handset and updates to its Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets. The devices will go on sale November 13. The company had planned to unveil the products at a large event in New York City but canceled at the last minute due to concerns about Hurricane Sandy.

Microsoft launches Windows 8, new tablet

Secrets, once used to build anticipation ahead of these announcements, are getting harder to keep, due to leaky supply chains and forgetful employees leaving devices behind in bars. Only a few new bits of information came out of Microsoft's presentation, which featured cute kids and Jessica Alba.

The attractive and colorful Windows 8 interface was shown off on large moving screens. As with the desktop version, icons are replaced by live-updating squares and rectangles, called Live Tiles, which can be customized by the user.

Microsoft highlighted a handful of new features. Parents might appreciate Kid's Corner, a new limited mode for the phone that can be customized for your children. Rooms allows you to group people together and share calendars, updates or other select information with just that group.

And Data Sense monitors how much of your data plan is being consumed, then optimizes your data usage so you can get more out of it.

The Windows Phone 8 platform isn't just an updated version of its predecessor. Microsoft has overhauled its entire design and architecture to make it more similar to the Windows 8 operating system, so that the user experience and data are more consistent across the entire line of products. Microsoft's SkyDrive feature can be used to sync photos, videos and Office documents across multiple Windows devices.

Other changes include adding support for sharing-feature near field communication, over-the-air updates and support for quad-core processors.

A new smartphone operating system is nothing without some slick new devices to run it. So far Windows Phone 8 has the Nokia Lumia 920 and 820, Samsung Ativ S and HTC's Windows Phone 8X and Windows Phone 8S. The first devices designed specificially for Windows Phone 8 should be available in stores and online starting in November.

Windows Phone has been around for two years, but it has yet to make a dent in a market dominated by Google and Apple. According to Strategy Analytics, Microsoft phones will only account for 4% of the smartphone market in the U.S. in 2012.

The launch isn't just a big deal for Microsoft. Finnish phone maker Nokia is taking a big gamble on the Windows Phone platform too, which might be its last chance to win back smartphone customers.

Nokia reigned as top cell phone company for many years, until 2007, the year the iPhone came out. Last week, the company slid off the list of top five smartphone manufacturers in the world, according to research firm IDC.

Nokia is still the No. 2 phone manufacturer in the world, thanks to its booming feature phone -- or "dumb phone" -- sales.

Microsoft has a big sales job ahead of it on Monday, explaining to consumers and businesses why this platform is a better choice than Android or iOS.

The Windows ecosystem's biggest missing piece at the moment is its app selection. At Monday's event, Ballmer said that the Windows Phone app store will have 46 of the top 50 apps from other stores, and announced a slew of new apps and games for the platform including Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Jetpack Joyride, Cut the Rope and Pandora (all new Windows Phone 8 users will get one year of free music, no ads).

There are still only 120,000 apps in the Microsoft app store, but that number could jump in the near future. Microsoft's Build developer conference begins Tuesday at the company's main base in Redmond, Washington.

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