Despite dominating the PC market with its Windows operating system and Office products, Microsoft has been unable to gain a foothold in the smartphone sector. Its Windows 7 operating system only featured on 5.6 percent of the smartphones used by US subscribers over the age of 13 (compared to 44.8 percent for Google and 27.4 percent with Apple) in the three months to September. With around 117 million smartphone units sold across the world in the last quarter alone, the market is lucrative for companies that grab consumer sales. As well for Microsoft, the rise of tablets such as the iPad and Android-powered devices has similarly left the company out in the cold.
But could all that be about to change? Microsoft certainly hopes so, and its recently-launched Windows Phone 7 is its latest attempt to crack the smartphone market. According to Microsoft, Windows Phone 7 is the most user-friendly handheld it has produced to date. The new OS will be available on nine phones, with 60 operators in 30 countries.
Andy Lees, head of Microsoft's mobile phone division, described the system as "a new beginning" for the manufacturer. Lees explained that his team managed to create the new operating system and user interface in the space of just 18 months. What will change? According to Lees, the OS will give OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) more choice on features, such as screen resolution. Additionally, he added that the platform will cater for Near Field Communications (NFC) in 2012 and LTE (4G) in years to come.
Microsoft cannot say for certain just how many applications would be available for the Windows Phone 7, according to Lees, who explained that this is largely due to the fact that so many are waiting for approval. If Microsoft does support third-party applications further, a wider scope of entertainment, news and other app offerings will be made available, while also tempting more people to purchase a Windows 7 phone.
Lees did announce, however, that key apps such as Facebook and Twitter have been fast-tracked onto the new operating system, which will come as a relief to many consumers.
Tony Cripps, who works for technology consultants Ovum, remarked: "There's a huge amount resting on the launch of Windows Phone 7 for Microsoft, its device and operator partners, and for the ecosystem market in general."
"If it fails to claw back market share lost to iPhone and Android, then Windows Phone 7 may well mark the point at which Microsoft turns its back on smartphones forever."
Regardless of whether the new device proves a hit with consumers, Lees has already confirmed that the manufacturer has no immediate plans to launch a Windows Phone 7 tablet computer. Instead, Microsoft plans to extend Windows 7 to existing tablets to ensure that a full computing experience is provided to consumers.
One major recent development has been the announcement that Nokia will be using Windows 7 on its handsets. The Finnish phone manufacturer unveiled a new crop of smartphones towards the end of last month - and with a larger screen than the iPhone, the Lumia 800's launch in November could help Microsoft launch itself as competition for Apple and Google.
There is other good news, too. Already, research firm Strategy Analytics has suggested that Microsoft will double its share of the Western European smartphone market during 2012 to 12.3 per cent. It also expects that sales would be boosted significantly by Microsoft's partnership with Nokia.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Microsoft will be able to truly compete with the likes of Apple and Google's Android platform. However, the technology giant may take hope from research published by analysts Gartner recently, predicting that Windows 7 will be on nearly 20 percent of all smartphones in the world by 2015.
With its domination of the PC market for the best part of a generation, and considering its widespread use on Nokia, Samsung and HTC devices, there is no reason to believe Microsoft and its Windows 7 operating system cannot claw back ground on Apple and Google in the years to come.