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Windows Phone 7 leaves operators on the hook

Locked-out operators want to know what's in it for them

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Microsoft is keen to talk about how operators can add value to its latest platform with pre-installed applications and tiles, but it's far from clear why they would bother, or wish any success on Redmond at all.

All the UK operators will be selling handsets with Windows Phone 7, and Microsoft has waxed lyrical about how they'll each be able to add value to the "Always Delightful" experience. But peek beneath the words and it's hard to see what an operator stands to gain by adding value within the limitations imposed by Redmond, or why the operators would be interested in helping Microsoft at all.

Mobile network operators have long customised handsets with their own branding and easy access to the services that bring in additional revenue; Microsoft was one of the most sympathetic suppliers involved as it curried favour in the hope of gaining shelf space. But those days are over. With Windows Phone 7, operators will have to compete with applications offering access to clouds from the manufacturers, as well as with Microsoft itself, with the scales tipped firmly against them.

Home screen replacements are obviously out, Microsoft wants a consistent user experience, but even something as innocuous as selling a game or a ringtone becomes fraught with complexity in Microsoft's simplified world.

Imagine for a moment that you're Vodafone: you've got a cloud service (Vodafone 360) that was supposed to revolutionise your business by tying customers to your hardware. That's not gone well and your cloud service is now a software suite pre-installed on smartphones. How do you go about replicating that on Windows Phone 7? You can't synchronise the address book or calendar, nor can you slip the customer's 360 contacts into their People Hub: that privilege is restricted to Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter. So now you're limited to creating your own hub and presenting all the features of your cloud there, such as Microsoft will allow.

Vodafone 360 has a music shop, so you can still sell the latest pop tunes. But you can't keep the music in your hub - Microsoft wants all the multimedia in one place, and not your place. Selling a game is equally complicated, and let's not forget that the manufacturer's cloud hub gets equal billing with yours too.

Being unable to effectively promote their clouds, the operators will be reduced to pre-installing applications with revenue-generating potential. Much was made of Orange's decision to provide an Orange Wednesdays app, and Tesco will no doubt slip the operator a few quid to pre-install its shopping app, but none of that is going to light a fire under the operators to put Windows Phone 7 front and centre in their store windows.

Not that lack of operator support necessarily means a platform will fail - your correspondent rather famously underestimated Apple's ability to appeal directly to consumers and shaft the operators in the process. One doesn't like to make the same mistake twice, but Microsoft is going to have a hard time following Apple and won't get more than the most lacklustre support from the networks. ®

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