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Windows Phone 7 Enters Tech Preview

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 is expected to hit the store shelves in time for the holiday season and they have just passed a major milestone in their development. Right now, everything appears to be on schedule. What I am not clear on at this stage though is how the average user is supposed to keep all of their important data on their phone and PC's in sync.

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 is expected to hit the store shelves in time for the holiday season and they have just passed a major milestone in their development. Right now, everything appears to be on schedule. What I am not clear on at this stage though is how the average user is supposed to keep all of their important data on their phone and PC's in sync.Last week Microsoft's Mobile group held a conference call for members of Mobius to give a rough status update of where the platform is at and answer questions. One of the biggest areas of discussion was on synchronizing data, but more on that later.

Microsoft is now locked on their Tech Preview build of WP7 for the next few months. That means it isn't finished, but this is past beta. Unlike most Tech Preview's the company builds, this one is only for a very few select individuals that have a device that meets the WP7 chassis requirements. Those people tend to be carriers, manufacturers and high profile developers. If they have the right device, they should be working with a build of the OS that is extremely close to the final build.

Just hearing that the Tech Preview is going to be in use for a few months worried me that they wouldn't make the 2010 deadline for shipping WP7, but they assured us that they were on target. In most of Windows Mobile's previous releases, once they went gold, it was still around three months before devices started flowing. I suspect the time from gold to release will be shorter since Microsoft has been working more closely with its partners on the WP7 build.

Devices will be usable out of the box. There has been speculation that the phones would ship using the Zune model. When you buy a Zune, you basically have a dead brick in the box. Once you download the Zune desktop software and dock it to the Zune, it installs the latest ROM from Microsoft's site. Even though WP7 will get its updates from the Zune desktop player, the phone will work out of the box, which makes sense as many people have the carrier activate the phone at the store and transfer contact over.

Speaking of contacts, the OS supports multiple Exchange servers allowing you to have multiple email, contact and calendar sources. This is good news for users with corporate Exchange servers and a desire to sync Google or Hotmail info. Windows Mobile Device Center and ActiveSync are a thing of the past. There will be no more syncing with Outlook on your desktop. It will have to go through an Exchange server for contacts and appointments. Email will be synchronized through Exchange, IMAP4 or POP3 servers.

Music will sync with the Zune desktop player, but documents won't. On this, the document sync solution is less clear. There is heavy SharPoint integration which is good unless your business doesn't have SharePoint or you are a consumer with no corporate server of any kind. There will be some level of SkyDrive support, but I suspect it is more for manual document uploading and downloading, not automatic synchronization. Office 2010 has some sort of cloud solution though it is unclear how this will work with WP7 devices.

I've been using Office 2010 for a few months and have never noticed any way to sync documents with the cloud. If it is like the Office Live Workspace addin for Office 2007, I'll want no part of it. It was slow and your files were only on the cloud, not on your PC. You may also be able to transfer files using OneNote's cloud solution. Other than that, I heard "you can email the file to yourself" far too many times to be comforted. For all of the Office cloud integration above, which I am still not totally clear on how it all works with WP7, it does little or nothing for non-Office documents. That means third party developers that have both desktop and phone apps will have to either write their own sync solution or figure out how to piggy-back on one of the above solutions.

Ideally, Microsoft would use its new Windows Live Sync tool, which is replacing Live Mesh, to keep your phone and computers up to date. Alternatively, we could wait for solutions like Dropbox or SugarSync to develop sync tools. DropBox has nothing for Windows Mobile today, but SugarSync does have a basic app that allows you to access files in your online storage account. There is no sync solution. The picture for those of us that like to keep certain documents on all devices in sync is looking pretty bleak right now. Microsoft seems to be betting that is a relatively small crowd.

The bottom line, as much of a pain ActiveSync and Windows Mobile Device Center were at times, the problem was in the execution, not the concept. They were designed to keep Internet Favorites, Music, Documents, all of your PIM data, pictures and emails in sync. When they worked, it was wonderful. When they didn't, it was frustrating. Now the solution for all of these may require multiple tools, some of which are free and some of which are not. Right now, I feel like it is going to be like a Linux user trying to cobble together a number of different software packages to accomplish what I can do on Windows or a Mac with a readily available program.

Is data sync a big issues for the average consumer? WP7 is clearly a consumer oriented device. Yes, it supports the enterprise, but Microsoft is going after the iPhone and Android market so the plan is to have individuals buy them one at a time, not to have companies buy them by the box load. So will the consumer be able to figure this out, or will most not care at all?

As for the Tech Preview itself, Boy Genius Report has some screenshots and commentary.

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