Will Company-Wide Beta Testing of Windows Phone 7 Help Microsoft?

Microsoft (s msft) will reportedly provide every one of its employees with a Windows Phone 7 handset, which works out to an instant user base of 90,000.

Microsoft-watcher Mary Jo Foley caught the tweet of the news yesterday and added a little snark of her own, saying “90k down… just under 30 million to go” — a loose reference how far behind Microsoft is in the smartphone market where it once was a leader. Ed Bott thinks the free phones are a “secret weapon” to help Microsoft developers seed applications — so when consumers buy the new phones, they have useful software to use on day one. There’s merit in Ed’s point, but I think the bigger questions may be how quickly can Microsoft adjust to user feedback, and how many employees will keep using the devices over the long haul?

We’ve seen such “dog-fooding” strategies before, the most recent and notable being the Google Nexus One, which was used by Google employees for weeks prior to the handset launch. Allowing the rank and file to use new products helps provide quick and actionable internal feedback. And for a company like Google that practices a “launch early and iterate often” mantra, internal product testing on a large scale can turn a good product into a great one. But if I had to pick a company that’s been completely contrary to Google’s speed, especially in terms of smartphones, it would be Microsoft.

Although prior updates to Windows Mobile were often hampered by carrier testing and influence, I can’t recall one single update that Microsoft offered to its smartphone platform in what I’d describe as a quick timeframe. A perfect example is Windows Mobile 6.1; it was mainly a minor sub-version, but it wasn’t even announced until 14 months after Windows Mobile 6 launched in February of 2007. Such lengthy timeframes between updates used to be the norm, but now that strategy simply won’t work. Google and, to a lesser degree, Apple (s aapl) are iterating mobile platform changes in terms of a few months and sometimes weeks, not years.

It will also be worth knowing what percentage of Microsoft employees still use the free handset a few months after launch. For some, the device is sure to be an upgrade over their current phone, so they may stick with Windows Phone 7 for better or worse. I’ll be very interested to see if those with a current handset from a competitor such as Google, Apple, Nokia (s nok) or Research In Motion (s rimm) hang on to their Microsoft device. We’ll probably never have those detailed numbers, but like Mary Jo, I’ll be watching for the signs in Twitter.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Mobile OSes Are No Longer Just About Mobile