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For a tech company, a late product can be as deadly as a bad one. That may be the situation confronting Microsoft (MSFT) as it releases Windows Phone 7, its new smartphone operating system. The software is fun, easy to use, and not just another iPhone wannabe. The bad news: It might be too late for good news.
Once a major player in handheld devices, Microsoft has seen its market position tumble since the 2007 arrival of the iPhone and the more recent explosion of handsets running Google's (GOOG) Android operating system. Its comeback attempts have fared as badly as Mike Tyson's: Last year an update of Microsoft's previous software was roundly panned; this year, two new phones aimed at young social- networkers were killed off in less than two months.
Unlike those efforts, Windows Phone 7 is nothing to be embarrassed about. Microsoft deserves credit for doing some things that go against the prevailing smartphone norm. Instead of a screen covered with little app icons, users get a set of colorful rectangles that Microsoft calls "live tiles." Some provide information at a glance and summon basic functions—the phone tile, for instance, tells you how many calls you've missed and brings up the dial pad. Others link to frequently used programs, such as a mobile version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. Still others are entry points for Windows Phone 7's Big Idea: the "hubs." These are collections of programs, information, and functions organized around a single theme.
There are six hubs: People, Pictures, Music & Videos, Marketplace, Microsoft Office, and Games. The People hub, for instance, aggregates your address book, Facebook friend list, and updates in one place. Music & Videos is based on Microsoft's Zune software, which is easy to use and syncs with content on your computer. Pictures is a home for your snapshots and a portal to others' Facebook photos. The hubs are easy to grasp, but not nearly comprehensive enough. Facebook is well integrated into the People hub—but Twitter isn't. The Pictures hub is great if you use Facebook or Windows Live. Prefer Flickr? It's a hassle. You can customize the home screen with your own tiles or add apps, but you'll find yourself scrolling through tiresome lists.
The first batch of handsets running the new software goes on sale Nov. 8. I used it on two that AT&T (T) will offer, the HTC Surround and Samsung Focus. (More than 20 phones are expected to hit the global market by Christmas.) Microsoft will be spending big to advertise them and provide incentives for manufacturers, carriers, and developers to make Windows Phone 7 a hit. The company finally has a good offering, but good may not be good enough.