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Microsoft goes to Toronto developer for smart phone apps

Microsoft has tapped a Canadian app developer to build a slew of new software for its newest mobile operating system, part of the U.S. technology giant's aggressive plan to catch up with Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Research In Motion Ltd. in the smart phone race.

Polar Mobile, a Toronto-based development shop whose clients include the Toronto Maple Leafs, Time magazine and the Canadian Football League, has signed a deal to develop 500 applications for Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, the newly launched mobile product.

The deal means that Polar will build Windows Phone versions of virtually all its existing 350 apps for BlackBerrys, iPhones, phones powered by Google's Android operating system and other smart phones. The firm will also build Windows-compatible apps for other content providers that it signs up in the future.

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The deal is one of the largest ever in the Canadian app development industry. For Microsoft, the contract means it can launch its new product with readily-available apps - Polar plans to have at least some of them completed by the time Windows Phone 7 handsets hit the market - as it struggles to compete with its rivals' app stores, which already contain tens or hundreds of thousands of apps.

"What has changed today versus two years ago is that they're not selling phones on hardware and price," said Polar CEO Kunal Gupta. "They realize that people are buying based on apps and content, and they see us as a one-to-many strategy."

Unlike traditional app development shops of similar size - Polar's staff numbers 40 people - Polar doesn't develop custom applications for clients from scratch. Instead, the company uses a template model. In essence, its customers fill out a digital form listing their requirements, their content feeds and other variables, and the software creates the app automatically.

That process allows Polar to churn out products at a much faster pace. At the beginning of the year, the company had produced 50 apps. Today, that number is up to 350, and Mr. Gupta expects to hit 500 by the end of the year.

Microsoft's previous forays into the smart phone space have faced stiff criticism from technology analysts and observers, in part because many reviews described previous versions of the Windows mobile operating system as too clunky, compared with slicker offerings from Microsoft's competitors.

Indeed, the lack of success in the mobile space - including the failed attempt to target a younger demographic with a line of semi-smart phones dubbed "Kin" - cost Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer part of his compensation for the 2010 fiscal year.

The newest iteration of Windows Phone, however, has received somewhat more positive reviews since it was unveiled earlier this month. But Microsoft will have to convince users that its app system has undergone a similar overhaul. While apps for Google and Apple phones number in the hundreds of thousands, users of Microsoft-based mobile products have far less choice.

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Harp Girn, Microsoft's marketing and strategy lead for the developer and platform group, said Microsoft has plans to partner up with a number of Canadian app developers, part of a wider strategy of alliances with carriers and phone makers.

"At a high level, we liked Polar's global presence and ability to scale," he said. "We've had conversations with them for a number of years."

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