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Windows Phone 7 starts with a sorry

"What joy is there in heaven when a sinner repents?" asked special guest Stephen Fry - and it just about summed up the bemusingly self-deprecating launch of Microsoft's new smartphone operating system, Windows Phone 7.

The arch-Microsoft disbeliever had been recruited to deliver a mop-headed tour de force - unscripted and unapproved, we were repeatedly reminded - as a way of demonstrating just how sorry the software giant was, and how much better it had done this time.

In between the trademark digs - "the shit on my shoe is better than Vista" - and keen to remind the audience that he hadn't been paid to appear, Fry welcomed the new mobile OS, saying of his Cupertino love affair: "I'm no monotheist. I want biodiversity."

Before Fry's appearance, a cast of Microsofties had lined up to don the sackcloth and ashes, fessing up to what Fry called the "tedious horror of drilling" down to find applications in Microsoft's earlier Windows Mobile 5 and 6.

President of Microsoft's mobile business, Andy Lees, promised the audience that the company had made a new start with mobile devices. "We needed to change," he said. "We decided to stop everything a take a full reset."

Even 'Softie-in-chief Steve Ballmer, who recently received a slap when half of his annual bonus was docked after Microsoft's Kin phone debacle, was in penitent mood.

Introducing a raft of new handsets from LG, HTC, Samsung and Dell, Ballmer acknowledged that Microsoft had misfired by forgetting to put consumers first, but promised WP7 would put them back at the centre of things with the eye-watering slogan: "Always delightful and wonderfully mine".

At first look, WP7's interface does represent a break from the past.

'Live tiles' replace icons on the phone's home screen, providing useful content at a glance. Instead of simply providing access to functions such as email or social networking, the tiles show constantly updated info such as the number of unread messages or pending tasks.

Applications provide one-click access to tasks such as posting images onto Facebook, and an easy-to-use left/right pan allows access to extra features in each app.

Seamless integration with Microsoft's newly-launched Zune music service was very much in evidence, but third-party software was thin on the ground, at least for demo purposes. The only in-depth look provided was at a Tesco shopping app.

Still, so far, so impressive - on first play the new OS at least provides a refreshing change from the home screen/apps style of both iOS 4 and Android, replacing them with a configurable page of tiles that enables users to decide which content is most important to them.

And now that Microsoft has dived into the same closed garden approach pioneered by Apple's iPhone, there's quicker and more seamless access to commonly-used features - though how that will hold up once we start to see third-party apps trickle out over the course of this month, we'll have to see.

Windows Phone 7 has the makings of an impressive product, but as the apologetic nature of the launch suggests, one can't help but wonder if it's too little, too late.