Weekend Tech Scan: A tech marvel for Microsoft or the emperor’s new phone?

There's much at stake for Microsoft, Nokia, and AT&T as the much-publicized Nokia Lumia 900 debuts this weekend.

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Nokia Lumia 900

There's much at stake for Microsoft, Nokia, and AT&T as the much-publicized Nokia Lumia 900 debuts this weekend.

On Sunday (April 8), the new Nokia Lumia 900 smartphone goes on sale at AT&T stores throughout Seattle and the rest of the nation. It’s a full-featured phone, as feature-laden as iPhones and top-of-the-line Android smartphones, and its standard selling price is an amazingly cheap $99 with a two-year contract.

This is no ordinary launch. The reputations, if not the fates, of two technological giants, Microsoft and Nokia, are at stake here.

Microsoft’s gamble on the phone is enormous. It badly needs a consumer winner other than the Xbox to counter several years of bad consumer press, plus the (erroneous) perception that it no longer has a seat at the table with other market leaders such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. It needs the phone as proof positive that it has properly redesigned its mobile phone operating system, now called Windows Phone, to compete in the market. Microsoft phones currently occupy less than 2 percent of the mobile phone market — where it once owned 47 percent.

Its mobile phone interface is based on Metro, a Microsoft design innovation that radically changes the look and feel of all Microsoft software products.  The Metro style is a clean, functional tile-based look. Several tiles are portals to other functions: “People” gives you entry to your social media accounts and “Marketplace” contains all your apps, music, games, and podcasts.

Metro started as the face of Windows Phones, including the new Windows 8 now in preview. It has transmuted into becoming the new face of Microsoft software. Windows Phone, in essence, is the stalking horse for a new direction.

Nokia was and is a company in trouble. Once the world’s largest phone manufacturers, its dated Symbian operating system, plus the rise of Apple and Android in the marketplace, all but marginalized the company in the last few years. According to CNN Money, until recently, Nokia had not sold any smartphones in the U.S. has been “almost invisible” here in the last five years. The Verge claims its Finland-based workforce has been cut in half since 2010 and it’s outsourcing to Asian companies.

If the public buys into both the phone hardware and the supporting Windows Phone operating system, then celebrations in both Redmond and Keilaniema, Finland — homes to Microsoft and Nokia, respectively — should be loud and boisterous. Last night in New York City’s Times Square, Nokia threw a launch party with an appearance by a "special guest artist" (it turned out to be Nicki Minaj).

While not as deeply dependent on the phone’s success, a glass or two will probably be raised in Dallas, the home of AT&T, which is heavily supporting both the new phone and the Microsoft phone system. AT&T is banking on the Nokia/Windows Phone as its replacement for its once-exclusive marketing of the iPhone. According to a Slashgear report, AT&T was calling the overall Lumia 900 promotional campaign its biggest launch ever, now that the Apple phone is being sold through additional providers.

When the Lumia 900 phone was introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show last January, the reviews were ecstatic; several publications gave it “best of show” awards. The PR excitement came from reviews, not through any exceptional push from the companies. It is ironic that the same press that earlier raised expectations for the phone may be responsible for lowering them as the phone is hitting the market.

Here are some samples.

Walt Mossberg,  dean of U.S. gadget writers and a Wall Street Journal columnist, noted the phone is the best yet for the “attractive” Windows Phone software, but added “[it] still doesn’t measure up to rival smartphones.”

New York Times columnist David Pogue called the phone “beautiful, fast and powerful,” praises the new operating system and says its functions are generally top notch. And then he asked, “But is that enough to make you sacrifice apps like Scrabble, Pandora and Dropbox [which are lacking on Windows Phones]? Is ‘just as good’ enough to justify losing out on the universe of accessories and compatibility?

From the tech press, The Verge’s respected editor Joshua Topolsky said the phone looks and feels like  nothing else on the market, noted “it’s time to stop giving Windows Phone a pass,” but added, “I really wanted to love this phone, but while the hardware delivers, the device as a whole does not.”

At Techrepublic.com, Jason Hiner thinks the phone will be of greatest interest to business professionals because it will sync easily with Microsoft Windows computers, Microsoft Office, Sharepoint and similar products.  But he concluded, “But, it’s not significantly better than Android or iPhone at enough things to make it worth switching from either my iPhone or my Android device, and that’s likely going to be the biggest challenge facing the Lumia 900.”

And finally, a review by CNET’s Marguerite Reardon, a dedicated iPhone user, sounded a note that many buyers will be thinking as they consider switching to a Windows Phone:  “[I] feel like it would be painful to break up with Apple. Not because I love the products or company so much, but because it would be a huge pain in the butt to transfer all my stuff to a new platform.”

One of the great strengths of Microsoft is its ability to stick with a product until it gets it right, and its willingness to pay for that privilege.  How many billions were spent in getting Windows from its much-criticized beginnings to become the world’s most used operating system?  How many billions is Microsoft still spending on its Bing search engine to make it competitive with Google?

Based on its efforts thus far, Microsoft has been successful in not being dissed in its efforts to relaunch itself as a mobile phone presence. Some may see that as a negative viewpoint, but in the climate that Microsoft has grown accustomed to encountering, that alone is a step forward. The Windows Phone software is well regarded as a credible, well thought out operating systems. The Lumia 900 and other phones created on the Windows Mobile platform are not inferior to their iPhone and Android rivals.  Some features are equal and a few are better — such as the Lumia 900’s ability to handle AT&T’s 4G LTE superfast data network — something not available on any iPhone.

But Microsoft is deficient on many apps that have become key to mobile users. Even though it is paying large amounts of money to developers for app development — as much as $600,000 in individual cases, according to ComputerWorld — there  is no easy way to make up for the app gap between the iPhone’s 600,00 apps, Android’s 500,000 and Microsoft’s 70,000 apps. More important, there are key apps missing. New York Times columnist Pogue listed the following as MIA: Yahoo Messenger, Dropbox, Pandora, Mint, Bump, Draw Something, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, Urbanspoon, and more.

Is this the time to try the Lumia 900 Windows Phone? Is this the right Windows Phone smartphone to switch to? Does this phone offer some unique service, or call out to you in some unique way? Does the $99 price for all those features act as a spur to your going with Windows instead of the other major phone systems?

We’ll all know more next week, and in the weeks to come. In the meantime, your comments can provide a guide.


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