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Windows Phone 7: Microsoft gets serious about mobile

Early reviews positive for sweeping revamp of Windows smartphone OS

By , Network World
February 16, 2010 10:30 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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