Windows Phone 7: Microsoft's last stand?

Can Windows Phone 7 resurrect Microsoft as a company normal people should care about? Or will using WinPho7 prove just as boring as using a Windows PC?

Wondering why the banks are closed today? Sure, there was that Columbus fellow who sailed the ocean blue 518 years ago and ended up near Cleveland (I think). But the real cause for celebration stems from the great northwest.

Because today is the day Microsoft unofficially unveiled its Windows Phone 7 OS. That means today is when we find out whether Microsoft will continue to be relevant to the day-to-day lives of most consumers or will just be some company that enterprise geeks who read InfoWorld grumble about.

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(Also, I understand Windows Phone 7 day has been declared a national holiday in 27 countries, most of them lacking vowels in their names.)

Anyone with more than 16 brain cells to rub together realizes the mobile OS is the future. Yes, there will always be desktops (and wall tops, car tops, refrigerator tops, and so on), but they will be touchscreen and gesture driven, run lightweight apps, and have a constant high-speed-but-still-not-fast-enough connection to the InterWebs.

In other words, they'll run a mobile OS even if they're attached to devices that don't move. And that changes everything. "Clicking" an on-screen icon may soon become as archaic a notion as "dialing" a phone. Folders? Hierarchical menus? Screens of death in a variety of eye-pleasing colors? Fahgeddaboutit.

Even Steve Ballmer understands this. The question is whether Microsoft can execute on a vision that aggressively rejects nearly every notion of personal computing the company has held dear for 25 years, and convince enough people to come along for the ride. IDG News quotes the Mad Ballmer from this morning's press confab:

"We wanted the Windows Phone to be delightful across a range of hardware devices, through a range of scenarios, and a [range] of different software experiences," Ballmer said.

Microsoft wanted to make Phone 7 "always delightful" and "wonderfully mine," he said, emphasizing the way that users will be able to customize the user interface.

Pop quiz: When's the last time you used the words "delightful" and "Microsoft" in the same paragraph? I guess when your share of the smartphone market has dropped below "other," you'll say anything to get people's attention.

Still, Ballmer isn't entirely without hope. Previews of the WinPho7 OS last spring generated nearly universal praise (though people got excited about the Kin for 15 minutes too). As usual, Microsoft has strong-armed rounded up some impressive hardware partners -- HTC, Samsung, LG, and Dell among them -- to build its handsets. On the other hand, the first carrier to offer a WinPho7 model will be.... AT&T. Yes, really. AT&T + Microsoft? That's like playing doubles tennis with Darth Vader and Snidely Whiplash.

The good news for bloggers is that Microsoft's hype engine is being cranked up yet again, which is always good for a few unintentional chuckles. Take the first Windows Phone 7 video ad, for example. It features a streetscape of people mesmerized by their handsets into a state of near catatonia to the tune of Donovan's "Season of the Witch." It ends with the tagline "It's time for a phone to save us from our phones."

Excuse me but, what the frak?

Or another ad that portrays people so obsessed with staring at their phones that they can no longer walk, jog, drink coffee, ride roller coasters, play with their children, perform surgery, have sex, or go tinkle. That one ends with the tagline "Be here now." (Baba Ram Dass is now spinning in his grave.) [Update: Or would be, if he were actually dead. Oops.]

It's a not-so-subtle dig at Apple iPhone and Google Android fanboys who seem unable to think or talk about anything but their latest app. But the conclusion we're supposed to draw about WinPho7 is a little unclear. That once you use a Windows Phone 7 you won't give a damn about it? That using WinPho7 is just as boring as using a Windows PC? This is what's going to make people ditch the iPhone and Android? Really?

It's possible Windows Phone 7 could resurrect Microsoft as a company normal people should care about. It might even change life as we know it. (I wouldn't risk any Ben Franklins on that one.)

At this point only one thing is clear: Today is either the first day of the rest of Microsoft's life, or it's the tomorrow we warned them about yesterday.

Would you consider buying a Windows 7 phone? Weigh in below or email me:

This article, "Windows Phone 7: Microsoft's last stand?," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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