Microsoft rejigs its phone software into electronic butler

Tweaking technology

Microsoft rejigs its phone software into electronic butler

Microsoft's Joe Belfiore demonstrating the new features refurbished Windows 7 mobile software. NYT

In Barcelona, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore spoke of getting past “the PC metaphor of icons” on phones. Microsoft’s new smartphone software, Windows Phone 7 Series, turns a phone into something akin to an electronic butler that tries to anticipate the user’s needs. It automatically taps into the carrier’s data network to pick up appointments, photos and messages from friends, and it presents all this information in a slick fashion that resembles a Zune music player more than a personal computer.

To build it required a humbling admission by Microsoft: its clunky Windows Mobile architecture had failed in the marketplace, and the company needed to start over from scratch if it had any hope of competing against Apple and its iPhone.

“To be entirely candid, the iPhone opened our eyes as to some things that needed to be done that were not in our plan,” Windows Phone engineering Vice-President Terry Myerson said, adding “Some execution had really gone astray.”

Whether Microsoft’s new software truly challenges Apple or ends up a barely noticed niche player, like the Zune to Apple’s iPod, remains to be seen. Windows Phone 7 is still in final development, and the first phones running the software will not be in stores until late this year.

But for Microsoft, a lot is at stake. Its share in the smartphone software market fell to 8.7 per cent last year from 11.8 per cent, according to the research firm Gartner. To create Windows Phone 7, Microsoft overhauled its phone software division two years ago. Underperformers in the group were sent to work elsewhere in the company, while some of Microsoft’s top talents were brought to the phone business.

Varied perspective
In addition, Microsoft hired people from companies like Nike and Procter & Gamble who could bring different perspectives. Microsoft pulled Myerson away from his work on Exchange, the company’s corporate e-mail and communications software. Myerson said he chose to take on “an impossible mission” rather than continuing to work on a sure winner.  “I had about a day to think about it, and it was pretty clear to me that this was the right thing for the company,” he said.

As Myerson put it, Microsoft had to bring more talented “plumbers and painters” to the mobile software group. This meant finding people who could design on schedule and others who could add some sizzle to its software, long criticized as dated and painfully tough to use.

“This is a people business,” Myerson said. “We are managing artists. We are not pouring steel.”One of the top “painters” at the company is Joe Belfiore, who has shepherded projects like Windows XP, Windows Media Centre and the Zune. Belfiore is portrayed by his co-workers as a user interface whiz.

When Microsoft provided the first look at Windows Phone 7 Series in February at a mobile phone industry conference in Barcelona, Spain, Microsoft Chief Executive Steven A Ballmer, ceded the spotlight to Belfiore for the grand unveiling.

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