Microsoft officials are exuding excitement over their prospects in the smartphone industry with the launch of Windows Phone 7. That’s partly because the company knows exactly what previous versions of their mobile operating system did wrong.
While BlackBerry dominated the corporate IT market with phones optimized for e-mail and quick messages, and the iPhone and Android enticed both consumers and business users with touch screens and apps, Microsoft has long struggled to differentiate its mobile devices.
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft needs to make phones that seem “cool” to the casual user as well as satisfy the needs of businesses. That’s where integration with well-known Microsoft products such as Office and SharePoint come in.
Microsoft official Paul Bryan, a Windows Phone product manager, admits that Office Mobile on previous versions of Windows for smartphones was marred by “impediments” that made it difficult to navigate and edit documents.
“One of the biggest impediments was … the navigation and the touch capability of the phone experience itself,” Bryan said during an interview this week at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference in Redmond, Wash. “If you had a PowerPoint or an Excel spreadsheet on Windows Mobile 6.5 it did offer you editing capabilities, but the issue was accessing that because you weren’t able to easily navigate the document.”
Microsoft added a SharePoint client to Windows Mobile 6.5 devices earlier this year while also offering major desktop software upgrades with the 2010 versions of Office and SharePoint.
But it’s only the arrival of Windows Phone 7 — which hits U.S. stores on Nov. 8 — that gives users a robust experience in accessing SharePoint on mobile devices, with SharePoint documents and sites being accessed from the same “hub” that includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote.
Office Mobile comes with all WP7 phones, making it available to consumer and business users. SharePoint, meanwhile, is licensed based on access to the SharePoint server, just like it would be with any desktop device, making it a business-only use case.
Bryan demonstrated a PowerPoint presentation on a prototype Windows Phone 7 device, showing how even decks with PowerPoint animations and builds render just like they do on a desktop computer.
Microsoft is requiring that all phones using its new mobile OS have a processor of at least 1GHz, which helps to quickly download and render complicated documents.
With Office Mobile and a SharePoint client on Windows Phone 7, documents can be synced to Windows Live SkyDrive or a SharePoint server. A likely use case is a professional on the go who wants to make a quick edit to a document as part of a collaborative process. It’s less likely that a user would want to use the phone to create a new document, particularly a complicated one, but it would at least be possible.
Microsoft describes Office Mobile as great for “lightweight editing,” and commenting on documents, but not necessarily for extensive edits, quite similarly to how Microsoft markets Office Web Apps, which Microsoft views as a complement to on-premise Office software rather than a replacement for it.
Certain aspects of complicated Excel files might not be rendered on a WP7 device, but in general “the quality and fidelity of the Excel spreadsheet is way beyond what you see in other [mobile] platforms,” says Microsoft group product manager Guy Gilbert. “It just renders in real high fidelity with tables formatted, graphics and charts looking great.”
“For the vast majority of cases you will see what you see on the desktop,” Bryan says.
While the goal is to make documents viewed on a phone look just like they would on a PC, Microsoft has added in several mobile-focused features that make it easier to navigate documents on these much smaller devices.
For example, Office Mobile automatically figures out what the key parts of a Word document are and creates an outline allowing the user to skip ahead to the parts they want to see, or can highlight where comments in a document are located, and make it easy to switch between charts and tabs in an Excel document.
There are supposedly 750 million users of Office worldwide, and Microsoft is trying to use that vast base like a club over its rivals. Microsoft has argued that Google Apps falls short in the business world because formatting gets stripped out when Microsoft Office documents are imported into Google Docs. In just the same way, Microsoft is arguing that iPhones and Androids can’t match Microsoft’s rendering of Office documents or the editing and synchronization capabilities.
That doesn’t mean competitors can’t try, though. No other phones can connect directly to SharePoint “without an app,” a key qualification Gilbert and Bryan make.
Microsoft is itself collaborating with Nokia to bring Office Mobile to Symbian-based phones, and could theoretically do the same for iPhones, Androids and BlackBerrys.
Microsoft may just wait and see how successful Windows Phone 7 is in the marketplace before making that kind of decision, however. While Microsoft dominates the desktop world with Windows and Office, it remains well behind its rivals in the mobile space. However, Microsoft officials say that previous versions of the Windows mobile OS suffered from inconsistent phone design across carriers and hardware makers, which “caused challenges from the development perspective.”
With Windows Phone 7, all phones must have the same basic 3-button design, although they can differ on processor speeds and form factor.
Microsoft, in effect, admits its starting all over in the mobile market.
“When you say ‘it’s a Windows phone’ now people will know what they’re talking about,” Bryan says. “In many respects, we’re just at the beginning.”
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