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MS joins phone battle with debut of Orange Stinger in UK

So is there only room for one Microsoft in this town?

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Microsoft's Stinger smartphone is finally with us, a year on from its first promised ship date, and after numerous missed ETAs in the intervening period. The winner, the Orange SPV, was unveiled in what Microsoft's press people curiously refer to as a "posh London nightclub," but which we thought was Old Billingsgate (a name with unexpected conjuring potential) Fish Market, last night, and in a curious sort of way it is still first, despite the delays to the Windows Smartphone platform.

The O2 XDA is also a Microsoft device, also on sale in the UK, but it's a PDA, not a smartphone. The Ericsson P800, like the SPV, is a phone-shaped device with PDA characteristics, but is experiencing regrettable delays. And the Nokia 7650? Well, that is a smartphone, but not a Windows smartphone, and although again it has PDA characteristics you'd probably differentiate it from the SPV by saying it came more from the phone end of the business, and relied considerably less on integration with a PC than the SPV. That particular Microsoft 'secret weapon' is however a dubious one - how many of the millions of mobile phone users are going to be in the slightest bit interested in picking up their email and syncing their contact books from their handsets? This one plays for Microsoft in the corporate market but not, we suspect, in the volume phone arena.

That said, with the arrival of the SPV there are now clearly two games in town, and it's a needle match between the Microsoft of the PC world and the Microsoft of mobile phones. The 7650 and the SPV both do email, both do pictures, both have games-capable screens, and both come in at a little under £200 with subsidy. The Orange does video (SPV stands for Sound Pictures Video), but video messaging is really a service provider differentiator in this context. For example, Germany's T-Mobile does video messaging, using the Nokia 7650.

The Orange deal is both an advantage and a disadvantage for Microsoft. Orange is a tough competitor in the UK, and will no doubt have secured some kind of 'free run' exclusive period for Stinger, so it's not going to waste this. But the exclusive means that Microsoft's total sales won't benefit from widespread distribution at this juncture; that will have to wait for similar deals with other networks (the SPV is built by HTC, which anticipates numerous such deals) and/or for other manufacturers to join the fray. One acid test may be how long it is before Orange parent company France Telecom (aka orange.fr) joins in. Or indeed 'if.'

Will Samsung be next? The Korean giant has a Stinger in the wings, but has bizarrely become strongly committed to both Microsoft and Symbian/Nokia in the same week. Symbian announced Samsung had licensed its OS on Monday, and yesterday Microsoft announced that Samsung had announced "it has selected the [Microsoft] Smartphone to power its next-generation handsets." There is, we suspect, an element of spy v spy here, and it might just be that the merry pranksters at Symbian announced something we all knew already in order to embarrass their old colleague Juha Christensen, who in his capacity as Microsoft VP i/c mobile phones is perfectly capable of embarrassing himself, here.#

Note that Juha, in between being excited (Microsoft execs interviewed by Microsoft Presspass always have to be excited, did you notice that?), pitches the SPV's unique qualities as being that it helps bridge the boundaries between business and home use (illusory, as we've already said - real people do not have lives like MS execs), and that you won't discard it after a year, because it'll "grow with you."

Rather than doing the bugfix gag, we'll try to address the perils of that in a more level-headed fashion. Yes, the mobile phone business has traditionally run on the basis of you throwing it away and getting a new one every year or two, but although some of the older execs are still a little horror-struck by the notion of upgradable phones, most of them are over that. Mobile phones are now application platforms, the applications can be bought and loaded onto them, so they do change and grow. However, you can't upgrade the hardware, and two years hence SPV mobile phone is going to look just as uncool as your Nokia 7650 mobile phone, and you're going to throw it away and get another one. So we suspect this 'growing' stuff as being mere marketing-speak.

But whatever, Stinger's here now, and the phoney war is over... ®

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