Editorial: Engadget on Windows Phone 7 Series

Microsoft took a dramatic step with Windows Phone 7 Series this morning at MWC in Barcelona, and obviously we've been talking about it all day here at Engadget HQ. Just like with the iPad and the Droid, opinions on the staff are all over the map -- it's not every day that a company reboots an entire OS -- so we're going to let everyone speak for themselves, starting with the people who've handled Windows Phone 7 Series in person: Josh, Chris, Thomas, and Sean.


The most astonishing thing about Windows Phone 7 Series is how completely it's managed to obliterate its Windows Mobile roots. Let's just be crystal clear about it: this is unlike anything the company has ever done, both in distancing itself from its past, and in the clarity of its vision. From the floor to ceiling, 7 Series is just a very new operating system with very new ideas about how users should be involved with their devices. What people should recognize is that the Windows Mobile team has made a huge gamble that upending its ailing OS was the only solution... and from the looks of things, that gamble has paid off. But this isn't a battle already won -- it's a battle yet to be fought. There's still much we don't know about this OS, and plenty to be concerned about when it comes to turning what looks nice in a demo into a daily use smartphone. There are huge questions to be answered. How are notifications handled? What kind of SDK will be made available to developers? How rigid will the user experience guidelines be? What is the real story on multitasking? Will the phone support third party browsers, email clients, or messaging applications? Can hardware manufacturers differentiate their products enough? Will the basic phone experience be useful to enterprise users or others looking for a workhorse and not just a pretty face?

Honestly, those are just a few of the questions I have -- but I also continue to be impressed with Microsoft's fierceness of conviction on this platform. If the company can hew close enough to its promises and deliver on the tall order it's set out for itself, then hope for Windows in the mobile space is far from dead. It's about to be reborn.


Let's be clear: Microsoft had no other option than to come to Mobile World Congress this year with a scorched-earth, ground-up rewrite of Windows Mobile, because anything less would've sent a very clear message that the company was -- for all practical purposes -- officially ceding defeat in the white-hot smartphone war. Actually, scratch that -- they needed to fundamentally reimagine the platform altogether, and amazingly, they seem to have managed to pull it off. For a company as steeped in its history and set in its ways as Microsoft tends to be, don't underestimate what a powerful realization that is.

What's most interesting to me are the parallels to last year's announcement of webOS; once again, a legendary mobile brand is reinventing itself in a bid to capture (and perhaps eclipse) its former glory, and in doing so, brings an authentically unique concept to the table. It's a dangerous play, of course, because you're banking on your brand's weight alone to carry you -- you're breaking compatibility and burning bridges with apps, customers, developers, and partners, which means you need to create a truly breathtaking product. It's got to be enough to shock and awe regular people -- not just geeks, enterprise fleets, or Engadget editors -- into signing up en masse and believing in your story and your ecosystem. Anything else would be regarded as a failure.

Do I think Windows Phone 7 Series has what it takes to capture the public's hearts and minds? That depends on countless factors, some of which are out of Microsoft's control -- hardware partners need to step up (and I firmly believe some of them will), the marketing message has to be right, and carriers need to throw some weight behind the devices they sell -- but my early impression is that this whole thing has a fighting chance. It's beautiful, it's unique, and frankly, it's a little crazy. To borrow a terribly-overused cliche, it's just crazy enough to work.

Anyhow, win or lose, I firmly believe Microsoft did the right thing -- what'd happen if more companies threw pride out of the window and took a billion-dollar chance once in a while?


Wow. My reaction to Windows Phone 7 isn't some manufactured corporate slogan -- it's the intense relief in knowing that Microsoft finally gets it. After years of disappointing Windows Mobile 6.x releases, the idea that Microsoft just announced an OS that can actually sex up an already bodacious handset like the HD2 (or HD3 by the time it's released) is almost unreal. The fact that vendors will soon ship devices on multiple carriers around the globe that instantly flatten the Xbox and Zune silos simply can't be happening. But it is. Hearing Microsoft repeat like a mantra "a mobile phone is not a PC" is certainly reason to celebrate.

The entire Microsoft Mobile crew at the launch event seemed to share my relief, visibly immersed in the moment and the hearty back-slapping gestures of commendation. Even hardware partners were legitimately excited (not apologetic) to be involved with Microsoft's latest mobile platform. At one point, after most of the press had left, a group of senior Microsoft execs were huddled on the ground in a circle enthusiastically reading the world's reactions and chuckling loudly. It was great to see. Fortunately, for all the well deserved celebrating that Microsoft will be doing tonight, it seems acutely aware of the task before it. Let's hope they can ship the promise -- we've been waiting for this kind of platform integration from Microsoft for a long, long time.


I wanted Microsoft's next OS to be great. I wanted them to succeed in this market -- or rather, to show us they were capable of something as amazing as other current smartphone OSes. Chris and I have run Windows Mobile well into the earth on more occasions then I can remember, but I never felt we were being unfair. It was broken for the devices it was meant to run on, the experience was much less than it could have been, and bottom line was simply unworkable for many users.

The Windows Phone 7 Series launch actually surprised me -- not just Microsoft's rethinking of its mobile platform, but the mood in the room. At several points during the launch, execs, partners, media, and all the other folks piled in with us applauded and cheered, there was genuine excitement in the room. Phone 7 Series has the makings -- or certainly looks to have -- to be something unique and cool, but we've just not seen enough yet to really form much of an opinion. The proof is going to be in use, and no matter how beautiful it is, failing to deliver day to day usability will likely see it fail from the start. The mood amongst all the other editors here in Barcelona was cautiously optimistic; I think Microsoft can make a serious go of this, now lets hope they can ship us something amazing.


First things first: I think what we've seen of Windows Phone 7 Series is gorgeous. As a longtime admirer of the Zune HD's interface, I'm thrilled to see it hit Microsoft's phone OS, and I'm even more curious to see how its elements and ideas are built out over time. But let's pause for a gut-check here: Microsoft's really good at building buzz on day one, but it's long-term execution that counts, and 7 has a long way to go before it becomes something more than just an Xbox and Zune featurephone. Apps are what make a smartphone "smart," after all, and Microsoft didn't address them at all, instead saying that users shouldn't have to pop in and out of apps while using a phone. That's a nice sentiment, but it's not reality -- at some point you're going to open that browser or camera app or email app and you're right back to square one. What's more, exposing glanceable information on the homescreen isn't quite the revolution Microsoft is making it out to be -- Motorola and Sony Ericsson are trying to do the same thing with Blur and Timescape, HTC has long been famous for its Sense and TouchFLO 3D WinMo skins, and hell, you could even argue that Palm's aiming at the same goals with Synergy and webOS. What's going to count is how Microsoft manages to bridge the gap between glanceable information that fits neatly into Windows Phone 7's hubs, and apps that demand more than just a casual look -- we saw a very pretty Office pane, but you'll notice we didn't see any Office apps. How does editing a Word or Excel file work if you're not "popped into" an app? What happens if you get an email while you're editing that file? You're going to have to pop out, right? What if you want to listen to Pandora while you get all this work done -- how do you do that without third-party multitasking?

Oh, but I have even more questions. We know there's going to be Xbox games, but the 360 is a fixed platform -- is the same true for 7? Zune HD games look pretty amazing running on the Zune's Tegra chip -- are they going to run with the same graphics performance on the Snapdragon chips dictated by Windows Phone 7? Vice-versa? What about other chipsets -- are we going to see OMAP4 and Tegra 2 devices? If the hardware specs are so tightly locked down, how will hardware manufacturers differentiate their products? I can keep going all night, really. I'm sure we'll find out many of these answers at MIX next month, and I'm sure many of our assumptions will be totally upended by the time actual 7 Series devices ship at the end of the year. But for now my excitement for Windows Phone 7 Series is mostly about Microsoft's courage in dumping the old to make way for the new -- yes, I'm hearing a lot of great ideas, but ideas don't make a product. Great artists ship, after all.


Microsoft has managed to get me interested in a mobile operating system by making it more Zune-like. Imagine saying that two years ago.


In many ways, I think webOS paved the way in my mindset for a phone more focused on "tasks" than "applications," but it still relies on an application metaphor to get there -- blurring the lines with its excellent implementation of multitasking. Microsoft is taking a much more revolutionary approach with Windows Phone 7 Series, at least in theory. The crossing of social networking and media streams has been done by numerous phone OS "skins," but never been so tightly integrated into the core of a major OS like this. I love the idea of working with my contacts and media in such a way, but there's just one problem: this usually falls woefully short of being truly usable in practice. Microsoft has convinced me that its heart is in the right place with its scorched earth approach to this new OS and liberal borrowing of well-loved Zune / WMC elements, but it has a ton of work to do in convincing me that it can actually pull it off in the sublime manner required to make this my next phone.

My other big question, and one that's rather related to the question above, is the idea of third party development. Microsoft is hinting at a sort of "extensible" framework, where developers might be able to augment these task hubs instead of compete with them. They can talk about the evils of jumping in and out of apps all they want, but that's exactly how you use the IE app that's so prominently displayed on the home screen. The goal in mind for me is to have all the application capabilities of a vibrant app store and a well-fed developer community presented in the integrated, beautiful way that Microsoft demonstrated in its core OS hubs. Maybe a pipe dream, but if I'm only getting this sort of velvet-glove UI treatment in the "right sort" of first party apps, I'm going to get tired of Windows Phone 7 in a hurry.


Just a few months ago I was about as dedicated a WinMo fan as you could find, but when Android 2.0 and the Droid dropped I couldn't turn a blind eye to the competition any longer. We'd been hearing promises of Windows Mobile 7 for ages and, with nothing shinier than 6.5 on the immediate horizon, I jumped ship. Any regrets after seeing today's formal reveal? Not really -- well, maybe a little. Yes, it's gorgeous, and yes, it's what I and everyone else though MS should make (a Zune with a phone) but now I have plenty of questions and some lingering concerns that this franchise reboot has thrown away a few too many key aspects. Am I still going to be able to whip up something in Visual Studio and have it running on my handset in minutes? Am I still going to be able to get actual work done? Is this a phone that a business professional can really be productive on? For me, Windows Mobile's key strength has been its suitability for day-to-day professional life -- serving up presentations, editing Excel spreadsheets, syncing with Exchange, remoting into servers -- and I have to wonder just how well Windows Phone 7 Series will fit the bill in that regard. Sure, it looks cool, but will Mikey up in Accounting like it?


From the onset, Microsoft should be commended for pulling off a gorgeous UI that manages to be something new altogether, a very bold move given what we've seen from the company prior. "Background pausing" or whatever still isn't multitasking, but the amount of social networking integration goes a long way to assuage those pains. Throw in Zune integration and I'm certainly excited, but until I see some compelling apps (notably on the Xbox front) and actual devices, or at least until I can hold it in my own hands to play, I'm not yet sold.

Richard Lawler:

While seeing Microsoft's new mobile OS with a slick interface is nice, I can't help but be a bit sad to see the Windows Mobile that first caught my eye and brought me to Engadget left by the wayside. The customizable skins and interfaces, copy and paste, multitasking and install methods that gave me so much control over my experience are gone under the new model. A method that allowed for both customization and an improved UI experience was the triumph I hoped for but as it stands simply following the pack, even with some well-executed integration of Zune and Xbox features, isn't enough to pull me away from WebOS yet. There's still some selling left to do before I believe the new way of doing things brings enough to the table to justify what we've sacrificed -- until someone jailbreaks it of course.


However embarrassing it may be, my reaction to Windows Phone 7 has to do with my mother. A Windows Mobile user since version 4.0, my mom was forced to give up her failing HTC Tilt last fall, and was urged by her colleagues to go for Apple's iPhone. Having used an antiquated mobile operating system for years, her discovery of the iPhone, its operating system and applications was extremely interesting and not to mention hilarious to watch -- I actually taped them. "Wow, my Windows Mobile phone couldn't do that!" she said while taking notes in her iPhone's "cool" spiral notebook-looking pad. "Well, of course it could," I told her. "You just didn't know where to look in all those menus." Her reaction was the same when it came to listening to music or using maps on the iPhone. Microsoft finally seems to have figured out what my technophobic mom did just a few months ago -- PC-like interfaces don't work on pocketable devices. Sure, we could knock Microsoft for not having something sooner, but the Redmond bunch showed us today that it not only has a handle on what modern-day mobile user experiences should be like, but that it's doing more than just catching up to the Apples, Palms and Googles of the world. I'm fairly confident that if my mom's HTC Tilt was replaced with a Windows Phone 7 series phone today that the discovery process would be just as interesting to watch. Nope, this doesn't look like my mother's Windows Mobile anymore.


Look, I like the idea of Windows Phone 7 Series. The name is entirely too long, of course, but I really dig what Microsoft is trying to do here. I recall a conversation with the staff two years ago at CES, and we all agreed that Microsoft could really make strides in competing with the more modern mobile operating systems if it would just throw backwards compatibility to the wind and start from scratch. I still can't believe it actually did just that today, and I can't help but pass out kudos where they're deserved. That said, I'm still not sure Microsoft is going to be able to regain the market share that it has lost to Android, webOS and iPhone OS (among others).

The fact is, Microsoft's mobile operations are viewed quite negatively by those who follow the mobile segment, and it has a long, long way to go before people begin to associate the company's mobile OS with something that's innovative, quick and fantastic to use. In our demo today, clicking on a home tile didn't lead into the place you wanted to be (People, we'll say) without first going through some flowery animation. That's cute on video, but that's another inefficiency I don't want as a power user. Microsoft is also at a disadvantage when it comes to committed users that are already neck-deep in apps that they've purchased and honed for their existing platform. When you're already invested in an ecosystem, it becomes ever harder to pull out and switch to something completely different (see: owning eight Nikkor lenses but lusting after a Canon body). I'll still need to toy around with a Windows Phone 7 Series device before making a final call, but can I say I'm optimistic that a significant quantity of existing iPhone, BlackBerry, webOS and Android users will suddenly drop everything and flock to Microsoft after today's presentation? Nah.


I've had a serious phone problem for at least the past year. After a roughly six month sojourn with a BlackBerry Bold, I returned to the iPhone. I'm not completely satisfied with it, though it's proven to be the best fit for me thus far. My last full time Windows Mobile device was a much-loved BlackJack -- and it was retired a long time ago, to be sure. While I'm attached to my phone for all of the work-related things it needs to do, I'm also a sucker for simplicity and elegance. And, to be honest, I've been desperately searching for a viable iPhone alternative for a long time -- partly because of its horrific call quality issues, and partially out of boredom, if I can be candid. So... is a Windows Phone 7 device for me? I haven't touched one or seen the interface in person, so there are a lot of unanswered questions for me, and I'm not a Zune user, so that facet of it doesn't pull me in immediately. Certainly Xbox integration is a massive draw, and what I've seen of the interface looks as enticing as anything I've seen in a long time. As an iPhone user, I'm 100 percent accustomed to the lack of multitasking, so it's not really a dealbreaker for me. If I sound unsure -- well, I am. I don't warm up to new devices quickly, and I'll have to spend some quality time with the software and hardware before I know if one of these devices will be for me. That said, I'm excited for myself -- and for the mobile space as a whole, which I think will definitely benefit from this new addition into the smartphone space.


My first reaction upon seeing the leaked home screen screenshot was "yes!" The angular monochromatic icons screamed minimalistic efficiency and gave me precisely the info I would want most readily accessible -- calls, emails, and messages -- with additional space available for me to insert other favorites. A total win then? Well, to be honest, the more the onion was peeled back the less enthusiasm I had. It turned out that the blocky icons were riddled with animations -- ones that apparently you can't turn off -- and moving between screens is accompanied by grand sweeping transitions. To be sure, those are sexy transitions that can grab attention with their novelty, but I can imagine them wearing thin when all you really wanna do is access an item that's buried under a few transitioned layers. My reaction therefore is one of ambivalence -- Microsoft clearly went out of its way to throw a bone to the minimalists out there, but couldn't help itself and also animated a bunch of things that diehards like myself might have preferred to see remain static. Ergo, the new OS seems to hang precariously between the two extremes -- it's not as flamboyant as Sony Ericsson's UX skin for Android, but neither is it sufficiently stripped down to satiate the true enthusiasts of functionalism. Solution seems to be an easy one though -- throw in a few more UI customization options, let the hippies color up their calendars and the business types switch off all the fancy stuff, and you should have no trouble shifting a couple hundred million copies.