Windows Phone 7: What you need to know
By Joseph D. Lienjdlien. Friday, October 15, 2010 4:02:01 PM
Microsoft unveiled a new phone platform that they tout as "Always delightful" and "Wonderfully mine". Will this make them competitive again? What's new?
On Monday Microsoft made the big announcement that smartphone junkies have been waiting for - they unveiled Windows Phone 7 to the public along with no less than ten new phone handsets. The presentation showcased the core features of the new mobile operating system along with a lot of marketing speak, but if you're wanting to cut to the chase and learn what's interesting about Windows Phone 7, read on for our summary.
The concepts behind Windows Phone 7
Departing from the well-known static icons approach, Windows Phone 7 introduces a new user interface called Metro which presents a series of animated tiles that present relevant information. These can easily be moved around or customized to present you with information that is the most relevant and interesting to you, and a user can scroll vertically through many tiles. Although the tiles look a little bland and monochromatic, it's an approach that looks to be very useful.
There is a lot of emphasis on "smart design" in Microsoft's initial presentation. The Metro UI is exemplary of this. What this means is that similar tasks are grouped together in a way that makes it easy to do related things with the fewest steps possible. One example of this is that you can simply pull the phone out of your pocket and press the camera button, start taking photos right away, and they can even be uploaded to Facebook automatically.
Even the lock screen also contains a lot of useful information besides just a clock - for instance it will show appointments that are coming up in the near future. Other thoughtful features that were presented include the ability to hold down the central "Windows Logo button" to search with voice commands, and an all-encompassing search functionality that can search content on the phone or the web with one button on the phone. Apparently Microsoft has put a lot of thought into making autocorrection when typing more effective.
Another point that is obvious from Microsoft's presentation is that they intend to use a lot of cloud-based services and storage throughout the platform, and from the sounds of things a lot of the relevent services here will be free (unlike Apple's MobileMe service, for instance).
Six Hubs to group apps and content
Instead of a single home screen from which all applications are launched, Windows Phone 7 groups related content and applications into a series of six hubs. The hubs have a screen that is wider than the phone itself and so they are scrolled through horizontally to see different columns of information.
The hubs are:
People: Allows you to see your contacts, call people, keep track of their Facebook status updates and communications.
Pictures: Obviously this shows the photos you have taken with the phone's camera, and also those from your own personal library, but it shows photos from your friends on Facebook and Windows live and lets you browse through them.
Office: Microsoft has enabled some pretty tight Office integration and allows you to view and edit documents on the phone, as well as access stuff from a SharePoint server - this is a great selling point for companies invested in this kind of Microsoft ecosystem.
Music & Video: Here you can obviously browse your own music, and the operating system tries to highlight your new content as well, making it easy to find the stuff that you are more likely to want to listen to. Taking a page from Microsoft's Zune products, Zunepass allows you to browser and stream music from the Internet with ease, and one can use third party applications to listen to music. It's not clear as to how limited that functionality will be since the OS doesn't really do multitasking at this point.
Gaming: This has become a pretty important selling point of modern smartphone platforms, and here Microsoft has managed to leverage their XBox ecosystem to good effect. The intention is that some games even can be played on both XBox and Windows Phone 7, although we'll see if that's actually practical. Your get an avatar that you can personalize and your gamerscore and XBox achievements are prominently displayed here. Additionally, it's easy to invite (or be invited by) others to play multiplayer games. Some flagship games will be available at launch like "Sims 3" and "Need For Speed". One game was demoed called "Ilo & Milo" which, interestingly, will be available only to AT&T subscribers.
Marketplace: Not only is this a place to purchase apps for the phone, but other applications allow you to do online shopping via ebay or Amazon.com, for instance. Music purchases will also be available via the marketplace hub, and this is also the place to go to check for software updates.
3rd Party apps
Obviously the phone will support 3rd party apps, and it is expected that a few thousand will be available at launch, which could be optimistic, but it is certain that this number will grow quickly. One concern is about how open and transparent MS's approach will be to application approvals and limitations. One could only hope that it is better than Apple's iron-fisted approach. It appears that current developers are finding apps rejected for a number of reasons, but that they do make it pretty clear about why the apps were rejected so that the problems can be easily rectified.
Browsing the Web
Web browsing on the phone has yet to be demonstrated much, although I would not be optimistic that this will offer the best experience out of the box. The browser is based on a cross between IE8 and IE9, so it likely won't support the breadth of open standards that modern desktop browsers are now employing. The browser also has no Flash or even Silverlight support.
It has been rumored that initially Microsoft isn't open to the idea of having a choice of browsers available, which isn't exactly the news we at Opera want to hear, but I'm confident that we'll find a way to get the speed of Opera Mini on this platform, just as we did with the iPhone. Obviously users who are on slow networks or who are paying roaming charges will want what Opera Mini provides, and it seems like Microsoft would be shooting themselves in the foot to not allow such useful applications on their platform.
Microsoft has taken an approach that lies somewhere between the complete absence of choice of Apple's single offering and the vast degree of fragmentation and wildly varying form factors that Android has been seen on. Clearly Microsoft's system isn't open like Android, but they have licensing deals with a handful of manufacturers who have produced ten offerings for the WP7 launch.
Microsoft has been very specific about the hardware requirements of their platform, so although there are several phones available, there isn't a significant differentiation between them - they all have similar specifications. All models offer a 1GHz Snapdragon processor and a 480x800 pixel screen. Unfortunately, not all phones will be available in all markets either, so which phones you can get will depend a lot on what your available carriers have to offer.
Here is a summary of the current models on offer.
Venue Pro: This features the only vertical slider keyboard in the lineup, at 4.1" it is also the second largest model, and features a rugged construction with a scratch-resistant gorilla glass screen. Dell's sole offering only offers 8GB of storage. The Venue Pro will be offered via T-Mobile in the US.
HD7: With a 4.3" screen this is the largest WP7 phone available. It's touted as an entertainment-centric device.
7 Surround: This unique design offers a slide-out surround sound speaker with kickstand, making it ideal for listening to music or standing it up to watch videos.
Mozart: A smaller phone that features the highest quality camera from the roundup with a Xenon flash. Unlike most of the others (with 16GB of storage), this only features 8GB.
Trophy: A straightforward slab device, and one of the thinner, lighter offerings from HTC. Features 8GB of storage.
7 Pro: Here's HTC's keyboarded offering in a landscape slider form factor. The screen pivots allowing for a comfortable typing configuration.
Optimus: LG's offerings support DLNA which allows it to act as a media remote control for a number of devices. The Optimus have a 3.8" screen and 16GB of storage.
Quantum/Optimus 7Q: Also supports DLNA, and this version features a slide out landscape keyboard.
Focus: Samsung's phones offer a bright, vivid Super AMOLED screen and 8GB of storage. The Focus also features a microSD card for expansion, and is one of the thinnest WP7 devices. The focus will be available in the US from AT&T.
Omnia 7: A 4" Super AMOLED screen and 8GB of storage are offered in Samsung's European offering.
Asus has also been working on a Windows Phone 7 handset, but details about it have not yet been announced.
what's missing from WP7?
Although what's there sounds pretty compelling so far, there are some major things missing from Microsoft's new platform. For one, it doesn't do copy and paste, which is sort of... a face-palmingly obvious omission of a feature that has been available in all of their operating systems since as far back as anyone can remember. Microsoft is well aware of this, however, and has pledged to bring copy and paste via a free firmware update early in 2011.
Additionally, there is no multitasking facility on offer, which puts them squarely behind of Apple who has recently brought this to their iPhones, and Palm whose WebOS multitasks very well as a core strength. This is compounded by the fact that some applications (especially games) take as much as three minutes to load. Let's hope that this gets worked on sooner than later.
It's clear that Microsoft has put a lot of thoughtful design into creating a new platform that can make using the phone for the things that are important to people simple and powerful. As much as they are missing some key features, the new design looks slick, and has been described as feeling very responsive and natural.
It will take some time for the WP7 app ecosystem to catch up to the major players in this field, but it shouldn't be a tough sell for developers to get behind a compelling new platform from an industry behemoth like Microsoft. It's clear that they are able to leverage their Office and XBox ecosystems to good effect here, as well as tying in with many of their other services like Bing, Live, etc, which is very reminiscent of what Google has been able to do in order to ensure that Android boosts their bottom line.
This phone could be very compelling to businesses who are heavily invested in the Microsoft ecosystem (Exchange, SharePoint, Office, etc.), as Microsoft has clearly made tight integration with their other products a priority here.
I'm excited to see how this shapes up as adopters start getting their phones and it certainly will turn the current smartphone platform wars up a notch to have another compelling offering available.