Windows Phone 8 marks Microsoft's 'all-in' moment on smartphones
Steve Ballmer said on Monday that Microsoft, its developers, software and hardware partners were "all in" on Windows Phone 8 - a phrase that will resonate with poker players making a final stand by putting all their chips on a last hand.
Ballmer, the company's chief executive, spoke at an event in San Francisco as the software giant launched the third version of its newest mobile operating system in three years, aiming finally to get traction against the entrenched positions of Apple's iOS and Google's Android.
Joe Belfiore, manager of the Windows Phone 8 program at Microsoft, showed off key elements of the new version of the software, including "Rooms" (which creates small groups of contacts with whom updates are shared), "Kids Corner" (which provides a limited set of apps that children can use without interacting with broader phone functions), "Datasense" (which compresses over-the-air data and monitors monthly data use) and new integration with the just-released Windows 8 desktop and tablet operating system.
But Belfiore admitted that despite Microsoft's best efforts by January it would still only have 46 of the top 50 apps from other app stores available for the platform. Even at launch, apps such as Skype - owned by Microsoft - and Pandora, the hugely popular music streaming service in the US, will not be ready at the launch this weekend.
HTC, Nokia and Samsung will have a variety of phones on sale from Friday, on all the UK operators and through Phones4U and Carphone Warehouse.
Windows Phone's distinctive tiled user interface - which has marked it apart from the more familiar icon-based interfaces of Android and iOS - has been slightly tweaked to include smaller tiles, though still larger than its rivals'.
"I think that with focus on Windows 8, what was different [in the tiled interface] will become familiar vs different being strange," commented Carolina Milanesi, smartphones analyst at the research group Gartner.
Presently, Windows Phone is struggling to make any impact on the broader smartphone market. In the third quarter of 2012 Windows Phone devices - almost all from struggling Nokia - made up about 3.5% of phones shipped, against 17% for Apple's iOS and 68% for Google's Android. The remainder was taken by BlackBerry-maker RIM and other products.
At the same time Gartner pulished new research which suggests that Windows Phone will grow its share rapidly over the next four years, going from roughly 17.4m users at the end of 2012 - against 142.8m iOS users and 429.8m Android users - to 207.1m users by the end of 2016.
By that time, Gartner reckons, Android will have 1.08bn users, and iOS 266.3m. That will put Windows Phone barely into third place behind Apple, while RIM is forecast to have slipped away from a high of 51.6m at the end of 2011 to just 23.3m by the end of 2016.
Microsoft has lured developers to the platform with the promise of payments - and is trying to do the same with customers, offering a year's free subscription to the paid-for Pandora service on the phones. However as Pandora is limited to the US, that will be less attractive to UK users.
In the US, Verizon will have exclusivity on Nokia's Lumia 822 phone.