"We've built a different kind of phone," said Ballmer, whose company has become an also ran in smartphones behind Apple, RIM, and, most recently, Google and its Android operating system.
Ballmer fell short of claiming Windows Phone 7 would be a game changer, but he promised devices based on the OS will be popular because they "bring together the things you love," beginning with a start screen that's grouped into six blocky tiles from which users can access calling, social media, messaging, photo, e-mail, and personal applications and services.
The tiles can be configured to display real-time updates from users' favorite apps. "Real people really want to use their phones wherever they go," said Ballmer, who spoke at a launch event held at a loft in New York City's trendy Chelsea neighborhood.
Windows Phone 7 will launch in the U.S. starting on Nov 8, with two entries from HTC--the Surround and the HD7--as well as the Samsung Focus, LG Quantum, and Dell Venue Pro. The OEM devices cover a broad range of form factors, from the Venue Pro's slide-out keyboard to the Surround's Dolby speakers, but all conform to a reference design laid out by Microsoft.
"Everybody should be able to look at a Windows Phone and say, 'I can represent me in this phone,'" said Ballmer, who emphasized that all devices based on Windows Phone 7 will deliver a common user experience that begins with the tiled interface.
The design rejects the icon-filled screens familiar to iPhone and Android users, and that's by design, said Ballmer. "We set out to build a phone that was thoroughly modern," he said. "We've taken a very different path," adding that Microsoft is aiming to deliver a mobile experience users will see as "always delightful and wonderfully mine."
Microsoft also is confident Windows Phone 7 will vault it back into relevance in the mobile space because of two trump cards it can play over the competition—direct integration with its cloud-based Office backbone, and direct integration with its Xbox Live online gaming service.
"The Office capabilities that are built in are unique and incredibly powerful," said Microsoft Windows Phone VP Joe Belfiore, who demonstrated a Windows Phone 7-based device in use as a PowerPoint editor and projector. He also noted that Windows Phone 7 is "the only phone that gives access to Xbox Live games," adding that the XNA Xbox game development environment is fully compatible with Windows Phone 7.
Some analysts aren't convinced, believing Microsoft has already lost too much ground to RIM, Apple, and Google. Gartner predicts the release of Windows Phone 7 will help bump Microsoft's share of the worldwide mobile OS market from 4.7% in 2010 to 5.2% in 2011, but says the company's share will ultimately fall back to just 3.9% by 2014.
Ballmer didn't offer any sales forecasts Monday to refute that, but seemed too optimistic for a man who believed the analysts' projections. Windows Phone 7 devices, he said, "are beautiful; each in its own way exceptionally beautiful."
The looming holiday shopping season should provide ample evidence as to whether consumers share Ballmer's enthusiasm for a platform that represents Microsoft's last chance to be a player in the smartphone market.