Windows Phone 7 Takes Its Cue From the iPhone

If I were to describe the attributes of a smartphone platform to you, could you guess which platform it is? Let’s try it and see. Here’s your first clue: Applications for it can only be installed through one specific app store. Since everyone has an app store these days, I’ll give you another hint. This phone family doesn’t support storage expansion through small memory cards. That should rule out a few contenders, but let’s take it one step further. The operating system doesn’t allow third-party applications to run in the background, but does allow notifications for these apps to make up for it. Think you know now? If you answered Apple’s iPhone, then you’re technically correct, but there’s a surprising answer that’s equally correct.

The phone I am talking about is not an iPhone (s aapl), but the new Microsoft Windows Phone (s msft).

The very same Apple attributes are causing some iPhone critics to say “I hate it” are, as Sacha Segan of PC Magazine notes, the same attributes that Microsoft is embracing. On the one hand, it’s difficult to argue with Apple’s success. The total control of hardware and software allows the Cupertino company to offer a consistent end-user experience — something that can’t be said of Microsoft’s current Windows Mobile handsets. With Windows Phone 7 however, Microsoft is taking over the overall experience in a very Apple-like way. In order to illustrate the similarities between Apple’s iPhone and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 approaches let’s look a look at some key attributes among the current and planned smartphone platforms:

Only two platforms share the exact same set of attributes: Apple’s and Microsoft’s.

Some of these new Microsoft approaches are surprising. For example, software for Windows Mobile 7 devices can only be installed directly from a Microsoft-controlled marketplace. That marketplace opened only four months ago and it wasn’t an exclusive storefront — at launch time, Microsoft still allowed third-party developers and stores to operate on their own. Some of these e-tailers — Handango, PocketGear and others come to mind — are what helped Windows Mobile growth to begin with, so they can’t be happy about this. Sure they can still support Windows Mobile handsets, but the future is with Windows Phone 7. Colin over at GigaOM agrees, saying, “It’s a move that’s sure to destroy some of the developer goodwill Microsoft has worked so hard to build up in recent weeks.”

Microsoft is also implementing a third-party app multitasking ban and using a push notification system to mitigate the limitation. Critics and fans of Windows Mobile alike have railed against Apple for only allowing certain native apps to run in the background — one of the strengths of the current Microsoft platform, not to mention something that all other major mobile platforms support. It’s something I enjoy with my Google Nexus one — far more than I expected to after nearly three years of iPhone ownership. Kiss it goodbye if you’re planning to use the newest Microsoft phones when they arrive before year-end. Ironically, as smartphone hardware matures, it’s rumored that Apple’s next iPhone OS version will bring multitasking to the table. If Apple has figured out a method to efficiently manage memory and multiple tasks without unduly taxing a phone battery, will Microsoft follow suit again?

Windows Phone 7 reportedly won’t support memory card storage, either. If you buy a phone with 16 GB of memory and need more room, you’ll be forced to do what iPhone owners do — either remove certain files to make more space or upgrade to a device with greater capacity. This lack of a storage upgrade is a terrible limitation, on any smartphone. Consumers are buying more digital media and creating vast amounts of digital content. And as our smartphones become used more like pocketable computers, we should be able to expand them like we do with computers. It’s not an expensive or difficult process to purchase a higher capacity memory card and place it in a phone if the device supports memory expansion. The hardest part is moving your data from one memory card to another, but with the right tools, even that’s a simple process. I think Microsoft is throwing away a key advantage over the iPhone here and I hope it considers changing this policy before Windows Phone 7 devices arrive.

On the plus side, I do think Microsoft has taken a strong, middle-ground approach with hardware requirements. Microsoft previously announced that it will specify minimum hardware requirements for the three Windows Phone 7 chassis designs. So handset makers and carriers can customize or differentiate devices as they see fit, provided they build upon minimum specifications. That ensures a measurable standard in terms of phone performance and user experience. Apple takes it one step further by designing and dictating the hardware models. Since Microsoft doesn’t build any of the phones that run its operating system, it’s doing what it can to offer a positive experience while allowing for choice in design.

Although this it isn’t an alleged Zune Phone, the new Windows Phone 7 works with content from the Zune Marketplace. Songs, videos, podcasts and more are available for download and purchase from a centralized shop, just like Apple offers with iTunes. Both devices work with media standards like MP3s, but some store purchases could be tied to the device platform. Yes, the iTunes store went DRM-free for music, but what happens when you buy a movie? You’re only going to watch that movie on Apple hardware. Microsoft has an advantage here in that the Zune store is bit more open — but just barely. Content is playable across Microsoft’s mobile devices, Xbox 360 and PCs that run the Windows operating system.

All in all, I’ve been impressed by the Windows Phone 7 software demos and new user interface. It’s exactly what Microsoft needs to revive its flagging smartphone market share. Much of what I see brings the new platform to a level of parity with what’s already out there and the competitors are unlikely to stand still. So we’ll have to take stock of the mobile platforms again when the new Windows Phone 7 devices arrive to see how well Microsoft is or isn’t doing as compared to its peers. For now, it looks like the game of “catch-up” is on in a big way — and sometimes the best way to catch-up is to emulate the success of others.

Given these developments, I’m curious if Windows Mobile fans are turned off by the strategy. Do you see differences between the Microsoft and Apple approach? If you don’t like the closed Apple ecosystem, will you embrace a similar one offered by Microsoft? And might the more controlling and closed nature of both Apple and Microsoft move you towards a more open platform like Android?

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):