First Hands On With Windows Phone 7

It’s been a tough year for Microsoft in mobile. Despite the launch of some impressive products with partners, the company has faced some harsh criticism but as I’ve said before no platform from 2009 is good enough for 2010 and beyond, and every mobile platform needs to evolve this year.

Microsoft’s efforts have been re-boot of the mobile platform, called Windows Phone 7 and it’s due later this year. There’s already been some criticism of the phone over the last week (from folks who haven’t actually used the OS hands on). I’ve held back responding as for the last week or so, I’ve been testing a pre-release build of Windows Phone 7. My embargo lifts this morning so here’s my thoughts.

First the hardware. Usually, when I talk about a phone, the combination of hardware and software is important. In this case, I’m not going to go into the hardware at all. The reason is Microsoft’s provided Samsung devices that I’ve been assured are hardware test designs that will never come to market. I can say they run Snapdragon processors and appear to have AMOLED screens. Most importantly, the OS ran well even in pre-release form with excellent fluidity and no slowdowns or lags. That’s a pretty good sign. There’s dedicated home, search and back buttons which make navigation easy and are likely to part of final hardware designs.

What I can discuss is the overall experience of the OS. Microsoft’s done a very good job with a revamped user experience that’s not like anything on the market. Taking a lot of UI cues from Zune HD, the OS is heavy on the visual, using fonts, color and an interesting use of space to make for a solid experience that’s both easy to learn and pleasing to look at. The UI can be customized with light or dark backgrounds (dark is the default with white on black text). Certain apps change though no matter what setting is picked. For example, the inbox always shows black text on white. The home screen can be customized with different applications or hubs, some of which are semi animated and updated live and others which are static. Swiping to the right shows a list of all apps. At the moment, there’s no way to configure this list and I can imagine it might get unwieldy with a large number of apps installed.

Some of the more important differentiated services such as Xbox Live integration and a new set of online services are not finished so they couldn’t be tested. (I had no problem integrating with Xbox gamer tags but other than displaying my avatar, there’s not a lot that’s hardwired just yet). That said, most of the core services are in place and work well. I had no problem setting up several Google accounts (which were automatically recognized to be able to sync not only email but calendars and contacts as well) and Live services. On the social side there’s currently support for Facebook (but not Twitter). One of the key UI elements of WP7 is the concept of hubs for things such as people and pictures. People for example presents not only a contact list sync but also social media updates for supported services. (one downside was all my contacts both from Googe and Facebook were now part of one large contact list, I’d like see better ways of segregating my views of people). Pictures likewise not only presents photos on the devices but photos shared by friends (in this case Facebook). I like the integrated experiences and the different views of information. It works well in practice and it will be interesting to see other apps and services that plug into the core hubs.

Table stakes features such as personal information management worked as expected with no surprises. Unfortunately, there’s no universal inbox nor are there threaded message views, something I’ve gotten accustomed to on other platforms. Microsoft’s updated the web browser and I found it both fast and functional. As expected, there’s no support for Flash. The application marketplace works but there’s only a few simple test apps available for things such as stocks and weather. Long term, how well that space gets filled in will determine success or failure. WP7 does have an important set of apps, namely mobile version of Office that work quite well. One Note in particular is quite cool and syncs online to Live services as well. It’s a key feature that’s nicely differentiated.

On the media side, there’s a full Zune client onboard that gives you full access to your Zune pass account. In addition to syncing over USB, it can also sync over WiFi to your PC. It’s very similar in function to the Zune HD experience and that’s a good thing IMHO.

Summing up, Microsoft’s doing the right things here with Windows Phone 7. It’s visibly differentiated from the competition but the challenge that comes with that will be explaining to the market why that difference is better than what we’ve seen before.

I like the concept of hubs a lot moving beyond silo apps into integrated services. A key here will be teaching users the new UI and getting app developers to buy into the eco system. Xbox Live and and Zune are also important and respectively drive greater use of Zune as well as give Microsoft instant credibility in mobile gaming out of the gate.

There’s a lot of questions that still need to be answered about Windows Phone 7. What will application support look like? Lack of apps for things such as Twitter or RSS reading make it hard to fairly judge the OS at this point. Likewise, final hardware and carrier partners, marketing and messaging all will help decide just how well Microsoft has done here with their efforts. That said, I like what I see so far and it looks like Windows Phone 7 has what it takes to silence many of Microsoft’s mobile critics. Windows Phone 7 has the potential to keep Microsoft in the race for relevance in the mobile platform space and drive other services and initiatives forward as well. As more services, features and apps come online, I’ll continue to update progress as we move closer to final code and launch.

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