Windows Phone 7: Microsoft gets serious about mobile

Early reviews positive for sweeping revamp of Windows smartphone OS

Microsoft Monday announced the new version of its phone operating system, Windows Phone 7. It's a sweeping redesign, coupled with an aggressive new partnership with handset makers and mobile carriers.

With the unveiling Monday of Microsoft's next mobile phone platform, Windows Phone 7, it's now official: the phone is not a PC. That statement became a mantra as Microsoft executives demonstrated a sweeping redesign of the company's mobile operating system.

But technical details were sparse, and the official Web site doesn't add much. Microsoft didn't reveal what changes, if any, it had made to the operating system kernel, which in the past has been based on Windows CE. The company says the Windows Mobile 7 Web browser is "much more advanced" than any previous offering, but didn't say from which version of desktop Internet Explorer it borrows the core components.

Microsoft says a new set of software development tools and resources, and presumably a software development kit, will be forthcoming but put off details until the company's MIX10 Web developer conference next month in Las Vegas.

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"We knew we needed and wanted to do things that were out of the box, that were clearly differentiated from our past and hopefully from other [offerings] in the market," said Steve Balmer, Microsoft CEO, who hosted the press conference at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. "It's a big step. I think we have a chance to have a major impact on the market."

Andrew Lees, senior vice president for Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business, talked at length about Microsoft's mobile partnerships, an approach that's been given a redesign almost as sweeping as the user interface. More than 1 billion phones are sold globally each year, vastly more than the current smartphone market, he noted. "We need partners to support Windows Phone on this scale," he said.

Phones from an array of leading handset makers, and all major U.S. mobile operators, will be available in time for the holiday shopping season in 2010. Microsoft officials were not more specific.

Using an unidentified prototype phone, Joe Belfiore, vice president of Windows Phone, demonstrated the new user interface. It's a dramatic change from Microsoft's original approach to the mobile market with the PocketPC: as the name implied, the idea was to translate the PC experience to mobile devices. That model is now extinct: "The phone is not a PC," Belfiore said repeatedly.

With Windows Mobile 7, users start with three buttons at the bottom of the screen: start, search and back. The initial lock screen gives way to a completely redesigned start screen. Microsoft has discarded the familiar grid-like display of application icons.

Instead, the UI offers a flexible, customizable display that combines elegantly clean, crisp text with intelligent icons, dubbed "live tiles" because they're linked with online data sources such as Facebook, Flickr or e-mail, grouped in "hubs" that bring together data from applications, corporate servers such as Microsoft Exchange, and the Web. Text and tiles "overflow" the touchscreen, but users pan quickly through arrangements that are visually consistent in each hub.

One hub is "productivity", which is built around the Microsoft Office suite, including the OneNote note-taking application, and SharePoint Server. Other hubs organize and synchronize people and contacts, photos, music and video, games via the first mobile phone Xbox Live connection, and marketplace for buying and downloading applications and games.

These integrated user "experiences" represent a real advance in mobile design, according to some.

"This is one feature I expected in [Windows Phone 7] based on prior previews I had had with Microsoft, and this is going to be a huge strength," said Alex Kac, president and founder of Web Information Systems, a software company specializing in mobile applications, including those for Microsoft platforms. "This is something Apple has done far better than Microsoft on the desktop, but not well at all on the iPhone and I'm excited to see that."

The redesign is getting strong early reviews.

"The result is a feat no phone has performed before: Making the iPhone's interface feel staid," said Gizmodo.com reviewer Matt Buchanan. "If you want to know what it feels like, the Zune HD [Microsoft's digital music player] provides a taste: Interface elements that run off the screen; beautiful, oversized text and graphics; flipping, panning, scrolling, zooming from screen to screen…."

"The sheer minimalism of the interface is striking, and we're really impressed by how many risks Microsoft is taking here," writes Joshua Topolsky, for Engadget. "It's hard to believe that just a year ago this company was showing off WM 6.5, which now looks ages behind what they've turned around with today. We're not sure if someone was just let off the leash or if we're seeing a newer, smarter, more agile Microsoft, but the 7 Series concept definitely shows that this company is learning from its mistakes."

The Zune influence isn't to everyone's taste. Kac admitted that he's not a fan of the Zune UI, though his objections are more esthetic than functional. "I'm not a fan of the large typography and avant garde look," he said. "I'm also not a fan of the blackness. The [Google] Nexus One [smartphone interface] is very black and I don't care for it."

The new operating system comes with Microsoft's search engine, Bing, and Bing Maps built-in, allowing a range of additional features to be exploited.

The revamped UI will be part of a hardware platform that Microsoft has developed in an unprecedented partnership with hardware and software vendors, according to Microsoft's Lees. For the first time, Microsoft worked very closely with Qualcomm to optimize the phone's silicon, presumably the advanced ARM-based Snapdragon processor, and the core operating system software and drivers. Secondly, with its partners, Microsoft has developed a common hardware architecture for Windows Phone 7 devices, for example, defining how sensors such as accelerometers will work in all these handsets. Partners included Dell, HP, HTC, LG, Sony Ericsson and Toshiba.

There was very little detail about the hardware architecture. Microsoft did reveal that the phones will offer a multi-touch screen experience "in the same way as" desktop Windows 7. And, Windows Phone 7 devices will combine a WVGA multi-touch screen with a display technique, part of Microsoft's ClearType technology called "sub pixel positioning." The combination results in text that's very easy to read, according to Microsoft.

"Microsoft has wisely (finally) decided [that] all device vendors must meet minimum hardware and software resource requirements before their devices will be certified," writes technology consultant Jack Gold, principle of J. Gold Associates. "This should make for a greatly enhanced user experience, although it will prevent some vendors (e.g., HTC) from creating their own layered UI on top of the OS to make their devices unique."

Finally, all the leading U.S. mobile carriers plan to introduce Windows Phone 7 devices later this year or early next year. Microsoft is working especially closely with AT&T, currently the sole U.S. operator for the Apple iPhone, and with Orange in Europe.

Lees promised new development tools and resources for Windows Phone application developers but wouldn't go into details about them. Those details, including whether or to what degree the phone's hubs are open to developers, may be critical in getting enterprise developers to embrace the platform.

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