|Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, launched nine phone models that operate the new Windows software [ AFP]
Microsoft, the giant US computer software company, has launched a new mobile phone operating platform in key Asia-Pacific countries as part of a campaign to catch up with rivals in the lucrative smartphone market.
Singapore, New Zealand and Australia were chosen by Microsoft, the world's largest software company, and its manufacturing partners for the Asian launch of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) on Tuesday.
Samsung and LG Electronics of South Korea along with Taiwan's HTC simultaneously unveiled in Singapore a range of mobile devices that will operate on WP7, underscoring the region's crucial role in the industry.
Microsoft, along with the network carriers and handset makers, is planning to spend more than $100m on marketing the phones, which analysts said could compete with Apple's iPhone--by far the best selling phone in the world.
Analysts say that Microsoft concedes that its bid to compete with the iPhone is an uphill battle.
"We are the first to admit that Microsoft is fighting for third place, not first or even second, at this point; but we believe this is a key step toward rebuilding confidence in their ability to innovate in mobile," Jason Maynard, a Wells Fargo analyst, said in a research note.
"This isn't going to move the market share needle in the short term."
A possible advantage for the Microsoft is the variety of its features, analysts note.
Microsoft has "phones with slide-out keyboards, larger screens, high definition outlets - all features that the iPhone does not have," Ross Rubin, a consumer electronics analyst, said.
"That should help Microsoft's competitive position. There will always be a segment of customers that seek out the newest devices."
The line-up of nine new phones will start to appear in stores in Europe later this month, and in the US in November.
The handsets are much closer in look and feel to Apple's iPhone than earlier Windows phones, with colourful touch-screens and "live tiles" on the starting screen for quick access to email, the web, music and games on the Xbox system.
"The user interface is quite innovative because it takes advantage of those precious few seconds when eyes hit the glass and actually gives you something useful," Al Hilwa at research firm IDC, said.
"It will probably be copied by other platforms over time."
British actor and writer Stephen Fry, an outspoken fan of Apple products, praised the phones on stage at a launch event in London.
"When I got one of these [phones] my first feeling was it's fun to play with. I have felt enormous pleasure using this phone," Fry said. He was reportedly not paid to speak at the event.
"Yes, I love Apple, but I'm not a monotheist. I want biodiversity in this market and all of us that love it should welcome that too."
The new phones represent Microsoft's last chance to catch up in the smartphone market with rivals who overtook it in the past few years.
"I've been looking forward to this day for some time," Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, said while showing off the nine phone models at a launch event in New York.
Ballmer, who has admitted his company "missed a generation" with its recent unpopular phone offerings, said the new phones would eventually be available from 60 mobile operators in 30 countries but did not give any sales forecasts for the new phones.
The new phones represent Microsoft's best attempt yet to introduce live connections with its other products and the web.
Users will be able to play Xbox Live games on the phones, link to Windows Office, use the Bing search engine and download and play music through its Zune music software.
Updates from Facebook will be incorporated into a user's contacts.
Game maker Electronic Arts Inc said it will introduce a wave of games for the new phone software this holiday season. That should boost the phone's popularity among gamers, especially the 25 million subscribers to Microsoft's Xbox Live gaming network.
Microsoft has a market share of only five per cent in the global smartphone market, according to research firm Gartner, compared with nine per cent a year ago.
Google's Android system has a 17 per cent market share, jumping from only two per cent a year ago.
Gartner expects almost 270 million smartphones to be sold worldwide this year, up 56 per cent from last year. In comparison, Gartner expects only a 19 per cent increase in worldwide PC sales to 368 million units this year.