Microsoft has begun providing a technical preview of Windows Phone 7, its upcoming mobile operating system platform, which it says is still very much on track for the 2010 holiday season. Most of what's in the technical preview has been seen or discussed at either Mobile World Congress in January, where Microsoft first unveiled its new strategy, and at the company's MIX conference in March. However, there are a couple of minor surprises.
Windows Phone 7 is a complete re-write. Microsoft continues to say that it is not ceasing support for Windows Mobile 6.5, but the new product is just that: new; not an upgrade. Rumors also persist that the company is actually on pace to deliver far earlier than expected. Microsoft would not comment on those rumors, nor specify a more precise ship date.
Although the software is not finished it is "in a really good state," according to Aaron Woodman, Director of Consumer Experiences for Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business. A technical preview means that devices running WIndows Phone 7 are undergoing lab testing at mobile operators. It also means that lots of developers are also getting test devices -- these are coming from ASUS, Samsung and LG. Microsoft announced some of its early application developers at MIX, including The Associated Press, WeatherBug, Electronic Arts, Fandango, Match.com, Photobucket, Seesmic and Sling Media. Not surprisingly, the list also includes Microsoft Game Studios -- the OS will ship with an Xbox client.
Some of the biggest differences in Windows Phone 7 revolve around Microsoft's tighter control of the entire ecosystem: developers will build in Silverlight, XNA and .Net; apps will only be supported via Microsoft's Marketplace; and there are a minimum set of hardware requirements for phones. The hardware basics include 256 MB of RAM, with a minimum of 4 GB Flash, WiFi (802.11 b/g), multi-touch capacitive screens and sensors for GPS, accelerometer, compass, proximity and light. Also, every phone will have the exact same feature buttons in the exact same places on the phone, including the hardware Bing button that will be one of three "power" buttons on the bottom of the phone.
Microsoft is leaning, then, toward more of the vertical integration approach that has worked so successfully for Apple (iPhone) and Research In Motion (BlackBerry). The main difference will be that users have more hardware choices. Those hardware OEMs, in addition to being restricted by some of the hardware specifications, will have to find interesting ways to add value -- any device functionality will have to fit underneath the user experience Microsoft has crafted. That is, things like HTC's Sense won't be visible to the end user.
Woodman said that "the market is choosing more vertical solutions." The hardware and software have to be built together, and it must provide a unified, consistent user experience, and it must also be predictable for the developer, he added. All applications and all widgets must work the same way. Hardware manufacturers will be able to add elements like keyboards, and the specified hardware minimums are, well, pretty minimum so there is some room for maneuvering, but not much.
This vertical approach, while a step or two more flexible than that offered by RIM and Apple, is still a far cry from the more open Android approach. If, as rumors have it, HP opts not to be a Windows Phone 7 OEM, and instead builds a similarly vertical approach around its Palm acquisition, it will pit some fairly heavy players against Android. Woodman, during our conversation, said that the user experience was designed "so the brain doesn't even have to function," a telling exaggeration that Apple's Steve Jobs put better, perhaps: "It just works." The question about how far to take this consumer appliance model will surely endure for some time. Another Microsoft spokesperson told me earlier that Windows Phone 7 will not be managed by Systems Center Mobile Device Manager, which begs the question about whether enterprise IT is being completely ignored thanks to consumer end runs.
For a demonstration of some of Windows Phone 7's functionality, watch the video below. Note: the Samsung phone is just a demonstration device.
Microsoft built the entire user experience (it calls it "smart design") around its notion of hubs -- those common actions Microsoft believes users experience on their phones. There are six hubs: people, pictures, music and video, games, marketplace and office. These are represented by flat, simple tiles on the home screen -- in fact, Woodman said that the home screen design is purposefully plain and consistent (the brain not needing to function thing again). There are very few fancy graphics, which he believes can be confusing, likening the simplicity to what you see at an airport, where you immediately understand, say, a departure icon. The home screen is slightly customizable in that you can pick the order of the tiles, and some of the information that shows up in those tiles. Also, there's no phone status bar at the top of the screen by default, which Woodman says can be distracting and not allow users to maximize the screen. You can enable the status bar.
Woodman demonstrated many of the concepts built into Windows Phone 7. Most are consistent with the latest smart phone software, but Microsoft has added some useful twists. For example, you can configure your contacts in the People hub to bring in social network status updates for those individuals--you'll even see those status changes right from the home screen within the tile. Bing doesn't have any new features, but it has been modified to work smartly within a mobile environment; it provides contextual results, starting with location, and you can see ratings or get reviews or directions with a simple swipe; phone numbers are selectable and can be dialed right from Bing.
It's much easier to pan through e-mail (I found this almost impossible in Windows Mobile 6.5), but there is no unified inbox -- Woodman said that there has been mixed response on the value of that feature. Text input comes with word correction, but it also includes a nifty way to display possible correct word choices. There is no support for Swype.
Office includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint, OneNote and Sharepoint integration (including tracking changes and comments). OneNote can record audio and hold pictures, and all of its content gets stored SkyDrive, accessible from anywhere. All of these apps have been re-written for Windows Phone 7.
Finally, Microsoft has required a camera button on the device right where you'd expect it as if it were a camera. Other phones have this as well, but with Windows Phone 7, this button can actually turn on the device to take a picture. The Pictures hub shows you not just what you've taken, but what you've published on social sites or what your friends have shared -- you can actually extract these into your Pictures hub, and they all sync onto SkyDrive immediately.
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Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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