Microsoft on Monday attempted to jump-start its flagging smartphone efforts, launching a new version of its mobile operating system along with a major advertising campaign for the new version of its Windows software.
At an event here featuring actress Jessica Alba and company CEO Steve Ballmer, Microsoft officials touted features of Windows Phone 8 that make it distinct from Apple's iOS and Google's Android, which together dominate the smartphone market. Phones featuring Microsoft's operating system will hit the market this weekend and Microsoft plans to tout them widely.
"You won't be able to turn on a TV or open a magazine without seeing a Microsoft Windows ad," Ballmer said.
Microsoft officials announced Windows Phone 8 at an event this summer, but the company did not say then when the software would be available or even open the new version of the software to developers.
On Monday, the company announced more new features, including an app designed to help users reduce the amount of data they use on cellular networks. Another new feature lets users set up a "Kid Zone" area on their phone that allows their children
access to certain apps while blocking them from others.
Microsoft also announced software to help users of Apple's iTunes software easily move their music and playlists to the company's new Xbox Music service, which comes pre-installed on the phones.
"The work we are doing is to reinvent the smartphone around you," said Joe Belfiore, a corporate vice president at Microsoft.
The relaunch of Windows Phone comes as Microsoft and its partners struggle in the smartphone market. The market share of smartphones running a Microsoft operating system has fallen from about 12 percent as recently as 2008 to less than 3 percent. Nokia, Microsoft's key partner, which is in the process of ditching its own Symbian operating system for Windows Phone, has seen its sales plunge and has laid off thousands of employees.
Belfiore said he wouldn't "venture a guess" about how the updated operating system would affect Microsoft's market share. But he said the company is in a much better position than when it launched Windows Phone 7 two years ago. The company has closer relationships with wireless carriers, the range of phones running Windows Phone is much improved, and Windows Phone users have a much greater variety of applications to choose from.
There are now 120,000 apps in the Windows Phone store. That's well up from a year ago, but still less than half of what users will find for either the iPhone or for Android devices. But Belfiore said that with the launch of some new Windows Phone apps in coming weeks, 46 of the top 50 apps on other phones will be available on Windows Phone devices.
"If you're coming at this with a check box, we think you can check all the boxes," he said.
Microsoft has done a good job of differentiating Windows Phone from its competitors, analysts said. But the company faces a big challenge in trying to convince consumers to switch to phones featuring the software.
"They have a lot of work to do at the software and marketing level to catch up," noted Tim Bajarin, an analyst with tech consulting firm Creative Strategies.
Microsoft needs to convince people to switch from the iPhone or from Android devices, Bajarin said, and that's a difficult task because consumers are buying more than just a phone -- they're buying an entire ecosystem that includes the apps and easy access to digital content such as movies, music and books.
The strength of Android and Apple in those areas "presents significant headwind (for Microsoft)," Bajarin said.
One way Microsoft is trying to attract new users to Windows Phone 8 is by building bridges to other devices and ecosystems, said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst with tech research firm IDC. In addition to the software that works with iTunes, a new feature in the Windows Phone "People" hub will allow users to share calendar entries with users on iPhones, he noted.
That's important, because few consumers are tied solely to one platform, O'Donnell said. Instead, most have a range of devices running on different operating systems.
"You're starting to see the beginning of a way for people to exist across multiple ecosystems," he said. "The question is how do they get more people to switch."
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285. Follow him on Twitter @troywolv.
Windows Phone 8
Here's what's new in the updated version of Microsoft's smartphone operating system:
--Shares code and interface with Windows 8, Microsoft's desktop and laptop operating system
--"Kid Zone" allows users to block children's access to certain apps
--"Data Sense" feature allows users to monitor and limit their use of cellular data
--"Live Apps" feature allows users to see updated pictures and reminders on their lock screen
--Uses "live tiles" rather than app icons; tiles can display updated information on the home screen, including recent messages and upcoming appointments
Phones running the software will go on sale starting this weekend. Older Windows Phone devices can't run Windows Phone 8.
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