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Updated Microsoft has thrown open the door on its Windows mobile marketplace, betting it can tempt customers and developers with a better service than the one offered by Apple's iPhone App Store.

On Monday, the software giant began accepting application submissions for apps that target devices running Windows Mobile 6.0, 6.1, and 6.5. Microsoft promised to turn submissions around over a 10-day-period, with apps evaluated on a first-in, first-out basis.

But don't expect to start downloading Windows Mobile applications by the middle of next week. The marketplace won't be open for business until this fall at the earliest for Windows Mobile 6.5 and around December for 6.0 and 6.1.

Microsoft will instead use the next few months to populate its online service. In conjunction with Monday's opening, Microsoft also announced a Race to Market competition for developers building Windows Mobile applications for the marketplace.

Prizes include four developer edition Microsoft Surface tables plus online marketing and promotion of your application.

Speaking at Microsoft's recent Worldwide Partner Conference, senior director of mobile services Todd Brix made it clear Microsoft is relying on partners to succeed against Apple.

As such, Microsoft's gone of its way to differentiate its marketplace from Apple's App Store in one vital way: The terms and conditions on what can be submitted and will be approved are clear. In May, Microsoft listed 12 criteria (warning: PDF) governing the applications that can be placed online in Microsoft's marketplace.

"We are late to market, and partnership is the core of our business," Brix told WPC. "One of the things we've heard from you [developers] is to solve problems in transparency and trust that are not available elsewhere... It's a shame if you develop and application an not know the criteria by which it passes and fails."

That was a jab at Apple. FYI.

But there was a powerful omen of just how far Microsoft has to go in rallying partners in its mobile crusade against Apple. Brix's session was seriously under-attended compared to WPC sessions about Windows 7 and Azure cloud services.

Brix reckoned Microsoft can win developers because it has cracked the reason why most people that download mobile applications don't use or pay for them.

"We think the number-one reason is because people lack confidence in what happens in the purchase experience," Brix said, adding Microsoft would provide a "robust and certain purchase experience."

For consumers buying applications, that will include a return and refund policy. Customers can return an application and get their money back up to 24 hours after buying, with Microsoft removing the application from a device using what Brix called "centralized device management." Customers will be limited to one return per month.

Microsoft will provide global first-line support on certain problems, such as a customer buying an application that failed to download. Technical queries will be passed to the ISV. Meanwhile, customers will need a Microsoft Live ID to access the marketplace, and Microsoft will anonymize individual customer's data while applications will be downloaded to the phone, not to a PC.

As part of its testing criteria, Microsoft will make sure applications work on the devices specified by the developer, check for correct installations, make sure there aren't memory leaks, make sure the software doesn't change the behavior of the phone, and check for malware. Microsoft will also check to ensure the content complies with its guidelines on user age.

Developers whose applications receive a "critical mass of complaints" for violating any of its 12 policies, meanwhile, will be notified "and it'll be up to you as an ISV to solve that."

For developers, Brix promised a strong emphasis on making money. It claimed a market of 30 million mobile devices running Windows Mobile 6.0 and 6.1.

So far, the marketplace targets 29 countries, although Brix promised more trials would be announced in other geographies in the coming months. He also said Microsoft is working with mobile operators and OEMs on "new ways" to download and distribute the marketplace.

Developers will get paid monthly through electronic fund transfer, once they've reached a $200 threshold with government holdings kept back. You'll also get real-time business intelligence on sales, downloads, and refunds in each country, plus access to reviews, customer support logs, and technical feedback. Applications can be built using native code and Win-32, with widgets build using Visual Studio 2008

Brix said Microsoft is looking at the inclusion of a subscription API in future releases of the marketplace. ®

This article has been updated to clarify when the marketplace will be opened for different versions of Windows Mobile.

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