Today at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Microsoft unveiled the next version of its mobile phone software, Windows Phone 7 Series. The name alone is noteworthy because:

  • The name has changed a number of times. Microsoft's mobile phone operating system software has had numerous monikers including Windows CE, Pocket PC, and Windows Mobile. Windows Phone is a relatively recent change, introduced as the primary branding with the release of the current version in the market, 6.5. Though not everyone got that memo all the online stores I visited today, including nearly every major North American operator, referred to phones that use Microsoft's platform as "Windows Mobile."
  • Seven major releases is a lot. Say what you will about Microsoft, they are persistent and remain committed in the face of achievement that falls short of their ambitions – which run high. Like so many of its products Microsoft has continuously improved the product previously known as Windows Mobile and today there are some bonafide desirable products using the platform, especially those that HTC produces like the HD2.

The payoff Microsoft's earned for its persistence has largely come from the enterprise market, where the software's primary appeal is its ability to work relatively smoothly with Exchange, Office, and other widely adopted Microsoft software (though competitors like RIM and, increasingly, Apple have proven adept at providing integration on par or superior to what Microsoft-powered devices offer). Their efforts in the consumer market have not paid off, which is the primary reason they purchased Danger, who designed the Sidekick devices and the attendant service software.
The primary goal of Windows Mobile 7 is clearly to address Microsoft's shortcomings in the consumer mobile market. All plaudits for their persistence aside, in my view this is their final chance to get it right (in fairness I think the window is closing rapidly on the Symbian platform too) as 2010 will be Android's year while RIM and Apple maintain their growth. The early view of Windows Mobile 7 is promising, notably:

  • The live home screen. The Net is a critical component of the applications and services that smartphone owners expect today, and it's smart to maintain live connections to content that is seamlessly updated in real time. Motorola and Nokia already have home screens that bring these live connections to the fore, and Microsoft's implementation is well designed.
  • The hardwired Bing button. Android-based phones like HTC's Hero were the first to make the now-obvious connection that search is a primary tool for mobile phones and should be accessible with a single click. Making that click an actual hardware button for all Windows Mobile 7 phones ensures access is nearly instantaneous, and of course gives added visibility for Bing and Microsoft-powered keyword ads.
  • The Xbox LIVE and Zune integration. Xbox LIVE is Microsoft's strongest consumer play outside of Windows and Live Services, and it represents one of the few unique points of integration that the company can bring to the mobile market. While Zune hasn't seen the same level of success, Windows Phone buyers will represent an segment easily upgraded to Zune subscription services.

However, these features won't matter if Microsoft doesn't get its branding in line. Our data show that consumers today haven't a clue about their phone's operating system. Consider the following responses of those who say they have a Windows Mobile phone:

  • In North America, 24% say their phone is made by Apple or RIM.
  • In Europe, 35% say their phone is made by Nokia.

Finally, the brand mark of Microsoft's most widely recognized brand – Windows – is not present at a single operator Web site alongside a phone that uses the software. Windows Phone 7 won't succeed if that remains the case.