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Windows Phone 8: Hands off!

HTC's reveal of its "signature" Windows Phones yesterday had plenty of Ballmer bada-boom, but missed one major factor: Windows Phone 8 itself.

As the iPhone parachutes into the hands of new owners everywhere, we're still not allowed to touch Windows Phone 8. Just like at the Nokia Lumia launch, at HTC's Windows Phone 8X launch no one other than official demonstrators were allowed to go beyond three screens: The home screen, the music player, and the camera app.

There's something off-kilter about the Windows Phone 8 rollout so far. HTC, Nokia and Samsung have all shown off Windows Phones, but nobody's been allowed to build up any enthusiasm over the great features of the new OS. Even developers have been left out of the party so far, with only makers of the "most downloaded" apps allowed to program for all the features of the new OS. That's no way to generate enthusiasm.

It's certainly Microsoft's prerogative to hold back features until it's ready to release the news, but the problem here is the sense that there are many moving parts, all out of sync. Nokia, HTC and Samsung clearly want to stop all of their potential purchasers from buying iPhones (now on sale – well, pre-order – and they’ll be out tomorrow), so they've put down IOUs in the form of these partial reveals. But Microsoft isn't playing along, making it look more like Microsoft just isn't ready, rather than the prospect that this is some kind of coordinated, gradual unveiling.

Let me repeat: The problem isn't that Microsoft's OS may not be ready. The problem is that we're seeing hardware announcements without an OS that's even functioning well enough to demonstrate, and that makes the whole ecosystem look confused and unreliable.

To Microsoft's credit, it's chosen the hardest possible path here. Apple controls its entire ecosystem from top to bottom. Google has relinquished control, as long as partners live up to some minimum requirements. (It tosses out a Nexus every year or so, but the Nexus models don't have a material impact on Android's success as a whole). Only Microsoft is left trying to make a bunch of competing OEMs act like a team.

Microsoft proclaiming that Nokia and HTC are both its premier partners adds to the confusion. For a year now, Nokia has been saying that as a Windows-Phone-centric company (run by an ex-Microsoftie, no less), it's Microsoft's special friend. Now Steve Ballmer is up on stage with HTC, proclaiming that the 8X is "truly a Windows Phone hero product." Is HTC Microsoft's best friend, or is Nokia?

Microsoft is playing coy. "Our partnership with Nokia is very important for Windows Phone and we are thrilled by the response to the Lumia 820 and 920 two weeks ago," Windows Phone senior product manager Greg Sullivan wrote to me in an email. "In addition to Nokia, we work with a variety of other OEMs who provide their own features and characteristics … Together with HTC we named these new phones Windows Phone 8X and 8S by HTC to more prominently feature our brand and to provide customers a simple choice when they go buy one."

I understand that Microsoft is trying to keep its partners in balance, but maybe it needs to step back a little to do so.

Strategy vs. software

Microsoft can do one very simple thing to change the focus of this discussion: Release the darn OS. The clock started ticking when we heard about the Lumia 820 and 920.

We know we're going to see the software before November, because that's when the HTC 8X is going to be on sale. But every phone announced with no public SDK and no hands-ons permitted makes Microsoft look less prepared.

Hopefully, none of this reflects on the quality of Windows Phone 8. I'm hoping it's going to be everything that was promised: A great-looking, people-centric OS with awesome Xbox-style gaming and terrific built-in social networking. I'm even considering switching from Android to Windows Phone 8 myself. I like its themes; they fit with my life.

But Windows Phone 7 was a really neat OS too, and it didn't get any traction. To win over carriers, press and public opinion, Microsoft needs more than great software: It needs great showmanship, and momentum. To get there, it really needs to let people touch the phones.