Microsoft has a lot riding on Windows Phone 8 as it competes against Google's hot-selling Android and Apple's iconic iPhone smartphones. New, breakthrough features may make the difference, including a new customizable start screen. Microsoft evangelists say Windows Phone 8 will be far more customizable than any Droid handset or the iPhone 5.

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Microsoft [recently] shared more details about the bells and whistles Windows Phone 8 will have when handsets start rolling out soon.

The media event followed last [week's] arrival on store shelves of the first Windows 8 PCs and the new Surface touch tablet Relevant Products/Services. Windows Phone 8 will use the same interactive touch-tile interface as other Windows 8 devices. The latest handsets are being readied by Nokia and HTC.

This could be Microsoft's last best chance to deliver a smartphone that can compete against Google's Android Relevant Products/Services and Apple's iPhone.

"Perhaps for the first time we are going to see hardware on par with iOS and Android devices in terms of computing power, screen resolutions, cameras and taking advantage of advanced network Relevant Products/Services bandwidth known as LTE Relevant Products/Services," says Al Hilwa, IDC analyst. "Support for SD cards and NFC (near field communication) is even ahead of the iPhone."

Google made Android the globe's best-selling smartphone platform by going with an open operating system that has resulted in more than 100 models and an array of features. The headliner of the moment: the Samsung Galaxy S III, which, like the Windows Phone, also beats the iPhone with expandable memory Relevant Products/Services and the ability to share data by tapping two handsets together.

Apple has successfully infused the iPhone 5 with a premium aura, promoting its thin case and big screen as must-have features.

Microsoft's theme [at its launch event] was all about the start screen and the integration Relevant Products/Services of Microsoft Office and Xbox Live in Windows Phone 8.

Microsoft evangelists are preaching that the start screen represents a breakthrough in personalization. They contend that Windows Phone 8 will be far more customizable than any Droid handset or the iPhone 5.

Senior product manager Greg Sullivan predicts personalization will be a differentiator. "You can really customize and make the phone a reflection of what you care about in ways that aren't possible on the other platforms."

A key to whether Microsoft can get within shouting distance of Google or Apple in phone software may be how quickly and pervasively application developers jump on board.

"I am a bit concerned about the effort that existing Windows Phone developers will need to evolve their WP7 apps to into WP8," says Hilwa. "I will also be looking for how developers will be able to support phone and tablet with a single universal app and a single app store."

Microsoft also has yet to solve the problem of getting salespeople at carrier and electronics stores to pitch Windows Phone 8, instead of grabbing the easy commission selling the Galaxy S III or iPhone.

But officials at Nokia and HTC have expressed enthusiasm for promoting Windows Phone 8. And AT&T Relevant Products/Services and other carriers have a vested interest in its success, because that would help them fight steep subsidies and royalties Apple charges for iPhone. "Marketing and distribution are very important," Hilwa observes. "A strong campaign to educate and compensate salespeople is key to winning."