Can Windows Phone 7 gain momentum with all eyes on Apple?

iPhone 4G overshadows TechEd

Today will see the long-awaited start of the Apple World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC), and the expected announcement of the fourth iPhone. Amid all the hype that is sure to surround the event and the keynote of CEO Steve Jobs, it will be difficult for Microsoft to gain much attention for its own annual developer event, TechEd, also taking place this week. However, this will be the best chance so far to evaluate the chances of probably its last bid to gain ground on Apple in the mobile world, with Windows Phone 7 (WP7).

On the Apple front, there will be the iPhone 4G and accompanying OS 4. Other likely debuts include a streamed, cloud-based version of iTunes, based on the defunct LaLa service that Apple bought at the turn of the year, updates to Apple TV and a rival to Microsoft Xbox Live for the iPhone, creating a gaming center.

More of that later of course, but in the meantime what can Microsoft do to create momentum around WP7? At the least, the firm will have to convince developers of its credibility with demonstrations of some real world handset prototypes and beta releases of the OS. The other key theme is expected to be enhancements to the cloud services strategy, particularly the Azure platform.

According to John Cox at Network World, Windows developers are very impressed with the "radically redesigned" user interface for WP7, but they are still having to rely on PC-based emulators, since handset prototypes have remained strictly slideware to date. Cox's surveys of developers have found that their key mobile wishlist consists of handsets on which to experiment, details of the WP7 Marketplace and its approval processes, and more information on enterprise features such as APIs. And of course, they need a beta release OS and beta tools - the system is currently in a pre-beta stage Microsoft calls Community Developer Preview.

Although Microsoft's most important handset partners, HTC and LG, have both promised early WP7 smartphones this year, it is not clear whether either will show off prototypes at TechEd. And Cox believes Microsoft will lose its early traction among programmers if it does not present a convincing future strategy, with promises in areas like enabling controlled multitasking or local storage. It has an unusually strong starting position, with the developer verdict so far being very positive, but this advantage could be easily lost if fears about the code's immaturity and uncertainties about WP7's future developments are not addressed.

Back with Apple, going into the release of iPhone 4, the firm has run into yet another controversy with its own developer community. This surrounds support for widgets, currently vital in most mobile software strategies.

Software houses claim Apple is deleting widget apps from its App Store, and aims to remove all widget apps from its shopfront. This could be a prelude to the incorporation of homescreen widgets into iPhone OS 4.0. In response to developer queries, an email response from Steve Jobs' mailbox said: "We are not allowing apps that create their own desktops. Sorry." Homescreen widget functionality is already available in Android, PCWorld points out.

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