Microsoft worked from the ground up to get back in the mobile game. The company is no actually new to the smartphone segment - except perhaps to those who only found out they could carry little computers in their pockets when Apple introduced their own Apple iPhone devices.
The smartphone category - those small computing devices that can run programs (apps in modern jargon), have a well defined development platform, and can even be used as a voice communcation devices - was probably created when Handspring created a GSM module that attached to its Visor PDA, based on Palm OS. The Visorphone (which I had one) was a basic GSM voice device with data capabilities. It allowed CSD (circuit switched access, pretty much like an old modem but over mobile networks) with 9.6 Kbps, very slow compared to today's 21 Mbps HSPA+ networs available around. This evolved into the Handspring Treo devices and then a whole new generation of devices.
Microsoft wasn't far behind in the PDA game, with its Pocket PC platform. Soon some smart folks added the necessary radios and created the Pocket PC Phone Edition, which changed later to Windows Mobile.
For some time windows Mobile was an enterprise tool, with some reasonably good developer story and a good number of commercial apps. It was a pretty open platform as in Microsoft never controlled what applications could run on it. People could create apps for that platform, but .Net required a paid licence to Visual Studio. Hobbyists couldn't simply start creating apps without paying something in advance. And the hardware, while advanced for those times, at some point started getting old.
Then came the Apple iPhone. Down with the stylus, give people finger control. Anyone could develop for smartphones now. And the whole category received a big push. Android came to the market, and now every device have WiFi, GPS, compass, sensors, touchscreen.
Microsoft noticed the movement and probably realised their enterprise focus was going nowhere. And they started again. The result of years of design, redesign, studies is Windows Phone 7 - not to be confused with Windows 7, the desktop operating system millions use on laptops and desktops.
How fresh is this new approach? For starters Microsoft left completely behind the "openess" of Windows Mobile. Windows Phone 7 hides a lot of controls we were used to "tweak" behind the scenes on Windows Mobile. Gone are the overly complex Settings pannel with thousands of options.
Even the Today screen is gone, replaced with a Start screen with tiles and hubs. The status bar, full of informational icons is no longer visible all the time, except for the digital clock on the top left. It's there, hidden though. Tap on top of the screen and you can glance at all the status information you need.
So how does it work?
To start Microsoft is still not making the hardware. This has not changed. The company still licences the operating system to OEM who then churn out devices with different form factors, sizes, keyboards. But all those devices have a minimum specification they must adhere to, and the operating system is designed to operate well within this spec - or beyond. This pretty much guarantees a consistent user experience, across different devices.
Windows Phone 7 takes full advantage of mobile GPUs, presenting a fluid user interface, full of effects, but completely different from other mobile platforms.
When you turn on the phone you are presented with the Start screen and its "Live tiles" - which are basically icons representing an app, person, or activities. Some are "live" some are not. A live tile will change its face to give you some information. The Outlook tile will show the number of new unread messages. WeatherBug will show you the current weather forecast. But some tiles will just show an icon.
Tap on a tile and the screen contents fly away, presenting you with the app interface. Most apps use the "hub" concept. Basically you can slide lists up and down, or pivot the content to other "views" moving the screen left or right with your fingers, using the flick motion.
You can organise the Start screen by moving the icons around, and adding others. Those can be any object on the phone - contacts, music, albums, videos, apps, bookmarks, documents.
For example the People Hub aggregates contact information from various sources: a Windows Live Hotmail account, Microsoft Exchange server, Facebook, Gmail, and others. Once you add those sources all your contacts will be listed in a single place. If a contact is present in more than one source you can link those to see a single card. You can flick to the side and see the latest Windows Live and Facebook updates in your personal network of friends. Or you can find a friend and post to her Facebook Wall directly from the People Hub.
You can touch and hold most of the list titles to change options specific to that list or app. With time you will find options everywhere, but hidden, using defaults that - most of the times - work well without adjustments.
Of course you have to be conscious of this constantly connected view of your world. Mobile data is taken for granted so you might want to adjust some of the settings to reduce the number of updates going on. Or make sure you adjust your mobile data plan.
Microsoft put Windows Live and Facebook in the People Hub, but missed some others though - I'd be happier if Twitter and LinkedIn were included. Or if People Hub allowed plugs so those other social networks could easily be added later.
From the Start screen you flick to the left and see the app list. It's a simple alphabetical list, one item per line, not live. Here you don't have any way to organise those icons
You get more apps from the Marketplace, which is growing quickly. From what I've seen every morning I find new apps listed in the marketplace. You can browse it directly from your device or from your desktop, using the Zune Desktop application.
I put below a five minute video with the basics of the Windows Live Start screen, Live Tiles and Hub experience:
The Zune Desktop is where you can manage the content on your Windows Phone. With it you can sync your existing music, podcasts and videos to your device, either via USB or via WiFi.
You also use the Zune Desktop to browse the marketplace to find applications for your phone or videos. It is interesting to note that in New Zealand the Zune Marketplace gives you access to videos, but not music.
I rented The Bourne Supremacy other day. The download wasn't as fast as I am used to with iTunes movies, but in less than 45 minutes I had the 1.3GB file downloaded, and in a few more minutes it was transferred to my Windows Phone 7. The playback was smooth, with no pauses or bumps. All in all a good and seamless experience.
The wireless sync is very handy. Turn the WiFi on before connecting your device via USB and you can tell Zune Desktop that this device will sync over wireless. If you leave wiFi turned on, the next time you plug the Windows Phone 7 to a charger at home it will connect to the network and "talk" to Zune Desktop on your PC. If you have selected any music to synchronise it will do this action behind the scenes, with no hands on required.
Office Mobile is perhaps the only "enterprise" feature Microsoft is making available at launch. It comes with essential apps: OneNote, Word, Excel and Powerpoint. OneNote allows you to write down quick notes, with some multimedia attached, and will automatically synchronise with your Windows Live Skydrive, a 25GB storage space in the cloud.
But Word, Excel and Powerpoint will only store the documents on the device itself, or on a Sharepoint server - which most consumers don't have. Big flaw there in my view.
The GPS on this device is fast, once you are past the cold start. In my case I can easily go to the built-in Maps application and get a location in a couple of seconds. The operating system now uses WiFi access points as reference, in addition to the mobile network itself, to help pinpoint your location, even when GPS is not available or not locked yet.
Basically if you have WiFi turned on while using any location-based application, it will "map" access points it finds, and report back to help create a database of access points. This is not different from Google Maps Mobile, and helps speed up location-based applications for everyone.
People talked a lot about "multitasking" in this new platform, and it has good and bad points. The good point is that rogue programs can't run in the background using up all the battery life in your device (as I've seen happening on my Android devices with a bad Facebook version a couple of months ago). The bad point is that developers still haven't grasped the concept really.
Basically every application will run freely when in the fron. As soon as you move to another application by using the Home or Back buttons the app will be "frozen". The operating system will write its state and remove it from memory. Once you go back to that app the developer should read its previous state and continue from there, giving the impression that the app itself was never closed. I haven't seen many apps going back to where they were though, so I hope developers learn this very quickly.
Internet browsing is quite good, with a new Internet Explorer mobile that is based on Internet Explorer 7, with bits of Internet Explorer 8 for good measure. Pages render fast, and you can have multiple tabs. But if you use the device in landscape you will soon find there's no conrol on the screen while in that orientation. You have to move it to portrait, enter an adress and then turn the device back to landscape again.
I am not an Xbox 360 gamer but it seems the gaming experience is good, bringing integration with Xbox LIVE leaderboards, avatar, Gamerscor and achievements.
Most of the times Microsoft made good design decisions. The interface is clean and fast. Complex settings are hidden away or non existent at all - which might cause power users to think "What?"
For example you can configure many different email accounts - Exchange, Windows Live Hotmail, Google Mail, POP/IMAP. You can select between push email, scheduled or manual check. But you can't configure MMS. You can attach multimedia to SMS but I couldn't find a way to change the MMS settings, so that this device I have could be used on another network.
In mobile data you can create new APNs (includin APN, username and password) but can't use any complex configuration, such as static IP for DNS, or VPNs.
As I said before Microsoft itself doesn't make the devices. Currenly available in New Zealand is the HTC Trophy, a mid-range device made by HTC, one of the first Windows Phone 7 partners - but also an Android supporter. The HTC Trophy is available through Vodafone New Zealand (but since I don't have a Vodafone account, I am using a 2degrees test SIM card with no problems).
The HTC Trophy feels very nice in your hand, and it's not a chunky phone. Very responsive and brilliant screen, I just don't use it full day because I am waiting for the LG models, coming to Telecom New Zealand, currently my mobile provider.
I am pretty happy with the platform, and as I said, waiting for it to be available through other mobile operators. As posted in my Twitter before, perhaps a solid 7/10, with some good potential ahead.
- Fresh operating system, good clean user interface design and good user experience
- No complex settings, or users are "protected" from them
- Apps for most common social networks out now (Facebook, Twitter)
- Commitment from large companies such as Amazon bringing the Kindle reader to the platform
- Zune Marketplace offers movies in New Zealand
- Windows Phone developers can use free tools to create apps
- Zune Marketplace does not have music or Zune Pass in New Zealand
- Zune Marketplace video prices are in "Microsoft Points" and app prices are in "New Zealand dollars"
- Inconsistent Search button experience (hit the Search button in Maps and you are taken to Bing search, hit the Search button in Markeplace or People and you are taken to these apps search)
- To fully use Maps in New Zealand you need to change Locale settings to US, otherwise you can't use directions and address search
- Even though Windows Phone 7 relies on Windows Live Id for app marketplace, synchronisation, it doesn't come with a Windows Live Messenger client
- Smart dial feature missing (where you can "spell" a contact's name directly from the phone dialpad on screen)