Phone 7 fans can probably leave their lawn chairs at home

AT&T understands it’s unlikely to have lines at its stores

November 8 is the launch date for new smartphones running Microsoft’s much-anticipated Windows Phone 7 operating system, but the two carriers that’ll be initially offering it in the U.S. -- AT&T and T-Mobile -- don’t seem to have battle plans in place to brace for it.

In either an attempt to lower expectations or to face the reality that Microsoft doesn’t have the “it” factor that Apple has with its products, an AT&T Mobility official told me they'd love a rush on launch day, but they’re not expecting it. The difference between an Apple launch of the iPhone or iPad -- with their long lines and fawning media coverage -- and the launch of Phone 7 is that Apple is deliberately coy about its products in order to build anticipation, while Microsoft has been open about Phone 7 for months, said Steve Conn, associate director of marketing for the Phone 7 product team at AT&T.

Microsoft initially announced Phone 7 was coming back in February and even at that media event, Microsoft executives were demonstrating features of the operating system on prototype phones. Microsoft has been open about what the user interface will look like with its series of tiles and hubs, and the software emulator that developers have used to test out mobile applications has been available for months, Conn said. Also, reporters have been posting “spy photos” of what some of the handsets might look like over the summer.

“I’d love to have people camped out at our stores days before,” said Conn. “But I think some of the mystery that might drive the ‘I’ve gotta be one of the first because I’ve got to see what it looks like’ is not there.”

This is not to overlook the fact Microsoft, in its day, has generated launch day buzz for some of its software products. I distinctly remember seeing lines of people outside stores the day the Windows 98 operating system went on sale in June of that year. Conveniently for me, that same day the new PC I’d ordered arrived at my home with Windows 98 already installed on it.

T-Mobile USA did not respond to my request for an interview on what its rollout plans might be. But publicly, it has stated that it will launch its first Phone 7 device, the HTC D7, on November 8 at a net price of $199.99 with a two-year service agreement. It’s a little more vague on the launch date for the Dell Venue Pro saying it’ll be available “in time for the holidays.” Of note, however, is that the Venue Pro will be sold directly by Dell and select retailers; T-Mobile is only the service provider.

AT&T will have the Samsung Focus available Nov. 8 and, later on, the LG Quantum and HTC Surround, all priced at $199.99, with a two-year service contract, which seems to be the price point sweet spot for rich-featured smartphones, Conn acknowledged.

While AT&T is preparing new shelf space in its stores for Phone 7 devices, they will sit alongside Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s BlackBerry models and a number of handsets running Google Android. And on a certain level, they’re similar, he said, in that they all are phones, have browsers, various messaging functions like IM and e-mail, and offer an array of downloadable apps. Nonetheless, AT&T is going to try to differentiate Phone 7 devices from the others with this pitch, Conn said: “Windows Phone 7 is more about how you do it rather than what you do.”

By way of example, he mentioned the way the UI is focused around the people you contact rather than the applications you use to contact them. When you want to find what message you last sent to John Smith, you don’t have to search through each siloed application to see if it was by e-mail, IM, phone or Facebook. You just click on John Smith and a record of all your contacts with him are right there.

Another point of differentiation could be that Phone 7 devices run Microsoft products like Xbox and Zune.

Thse features might not be the killer app for every customer, but they could be for others and at least are points of differentiation for Phone 7 versus the others. Besides, the customer will have all the time they need to think about it. It’s not like someone else in the store is going to grab the phone out of their hands to buy it.

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