The basic facts
Windows Phone 7 Series is the successor to Microsoft's line of Windows Mobile phone operating systems. It's based on the Windows CE 6 kernel, like the Zune HD, while current versions of Windows Mobile are based on Windows CE 5. Microsoft announced the new OS at Mobile World Congress 2010 in Barcelona, and says that the first handsets to run it are supposed to be released by the holiday shopping season of this year.
The visual and underlying differences in the operating system are almost too numerous to mention, including a completely (and we do mean completely) upended user interface, an emphasis on finger-based touchscreen input, deep social networking integration, fully branded and expansive Zune and Xbox components, and extremely strict hardware requirements for partners. A couple familiar touchstones from the past include plans for Outlook and Office support, as well as licensing to a wide variety of third party hardware vendors -- despite the name change, Microsoft still isn't building any phones itself.
Part of what makes Windows Phone 7 Series a departure for Microsoft is that the company is taking a much bigger role in dictating what hardware is allowed to run the OS. While we still haven't seen an actual device produced by a manufacturer for retail (the demo unit being shown off is a prototype slab allegedly made by Garmin-Asus, but not a device that might ever come to market), Microsoft has a very clear picture of what they want these units to be built like. Still, while the company is laying down the ground rules in an attempt to create a more consistent experience across phones, it doesn't mean there won't be variety. You'll see variation in devices (yes, some with and some without a keyboard), but there will be a much more steady tone in the nature of Windows Phone 7 Series handsets. Here's a look at some of the minimum specs detailed to us thus far:
- Large WVGA screen with a single aspect ratio (which means BlackBerry-style devices won't be readily available to begin with)
- Five specific hardware buttons required: Start, back, search (a dedicated Bing button), camera button, and power -- no more, no less
- Capacitive multitouch
- CPU and GPU requirements (beginning with Qualcomm's Snapdragon as the go-to processor)
- FM radio
- High resolution camera
What's the software like?
How exactly is Windows Phone 7 Series different than previous versions of Windows Mobile? The question is probably better phrased as "how isn't Windows Phone 7 Series different than previous versions of Windows Mobile." This isn't a coat of paint or a touch up -- this is a full-scale nuclear assault on everything you knew about Windows on phones. Basically, every interface paradigm you've seen in earlier versions is obliterated here, and the design has been utterly decimated (in a very, very good way). There's no longer a Start menu, drop downs, check boxes, radio buttons, windows, lists of icons... we could go on and on, but suffice to say this thing is just a totally different beast altogether. Microsoft clearly worked long and hard developing new ways to navigate a phone, and this doesn't even bear a resemblance to other phones currently on the market. There are no icon grids, no pull down menus, no card view, and no task manager (more on that in a moment).
So what is it actually like? Well, it's a lot like the Zune HD. In fact -- it's just like the Zune HD... but more. Microsoft says it's drawn on its Zune and Windows Media Center UI concepts and come up with something it calls "Metro." A typographic and motion heavy interface based on primary colors and lots of minimal, negative space. Whatever you call it, however, it should be very familiar to anyone who's ever glanced at a Zune HD, because it incorporates all those weird interface tweaks that made it so distinct, such as large, bold text that trails off the screen, menus which move dimensionally in and out instead of just side to side, and the sense that you're panning over long, single pages of information, rather than a set of separate panels. Another way Microsoft refers to the look is "chromeless," which can best be witnessed in the clean, sharp "tiles" which dominate the home screen, completely lacking in any real world-inspired bevels, drop shadows, curves or textures, or the Tron-like calendar app, dialer, and alphabetical contact search grid, which look like they've been built out of spare parts from Tempest.
The OS's unlock screen is similar to the Zune's; a large photo that can be dragged upward to unlock the device, though it also includes time, date, upcoming calendar items, number of unread messages, and number of missed calls (imagine that -- information on a lock screen!). Behind the unlock is the Start screen, which is composed of user-configurable and movable "tiles" in a somewhat narrow strip down the middle of the screen, either in sets of two across, or longer single tiles. Tiles can be linked to an app (like Internet Explorer), a specific contact or website, a photo gallery, playlist, can function as a standalone widget, or reach out to one of the "hubs" which comprise the majority of the phone's functionality. In fact, there seems to be no end to what you might be able to link the tiles to (we'll wait for word on Microsoft though, because we suspect there is an end). The panels are live and animated, with changes coming in the form of status updates from friends, new photos, new messages, upcoming calendar events and so forth. Your most used or best loved tiles can be "promoted" to the top of this list, meaning that what you are most likely to reach for is easily accessible, but as your habits or use change, so does the arrangement of your Start screen, and the list of tiles is infinitely long. Infinite.
Hubs are where things really get interesting, however. Microsoft described it to us as an "app that makes sense of your apps." Instead of icon screens or just the applications themselves, Microsoft offers a weird kind of middle ground -- sections of the phone where further action can be taken. You're not diving down into obscure menus here, rather interacting with a subset of functionality within the OS or applications. When you jump into a hub, you land in a horizontal-scrolling interface, with a series of scrollable data streams and views in parallel that you can "pivot" to. Again, this should be very familiar to Zune users. The content in a hub is composed of both locally-stored data and cloud-sourced information such as photos, contacts and so forth, and each hub has its own particular emphasis. The cloud-connected content is interesting, because it means you'll be able to browse both locally stored data (such as a photo gallery) or a server-side collection in exactly the same way, with no break in the user experience or separate action required.
Core-functionality applications have a similar but more minimal interface, centered around a single task like SMS or email, while still relying on the swipe (or pan or pivot, whichever term you refer) motion to switch between views. At the bottom of the screen is an "app bar" that has a few icon shortcuts to common commands (like add calendar item or back and forward in the browser), but which also can be pulled up like a drawer to reveal further commands available to the user. Additionally, the search button is contextual, meaning that depending on where you're located on the device it can have slight variations on behavior. For instance, when you're in your contact list, tapping search will call up a contact search, as opposed to dropping you into a web or device search. Make no mistake about it though, Bing is your main avenue of search with this device, and Microsoft is pushing its engine hard, making it a central part of the user experience for both local (that is, local to the phone) and external content.
Also present in Windows Phone 7 Series is an all-new touchscreen keyboard (again, similar to its Zune HD counterpart), but with some significant auto-correction, along with the ability to tap a word you've already typed and select or type a correction for it. There's even a dedicated button to reveal a bevy of emoticons when updating your status, though this isn't unheard of -- Android features a similar set.
So how does it feel? Well right now it's rough. Overall things seem solid and connected, but there are clearly holes where this software is unfinished, and components of the interface that still require some serious debugging. The touchscreen in particular troubled us, as we saw inconsistent results from scrolling and tapping (sometimes there was no reaction at all, sometimes it went a bit crazy). There are also lots of pieces of this puzzle we haven't seen, such as notifications, and we still don't have a clear understanding of the nuts and bolts on things like multitasking (on that topic Microsoft is mostly mum, but the word is that this won't be true a "true" multitasking OS, rather something more like the iPhone), but it's relatively early on at this point. We have reservations about other things as well, little concerns such as the time it takes to jump from one task to another (we're hoping that the company gives us options to tweak animations and interface settings to some extent). Microsoft has the next six months or so to take what is an exciting and really fresh OS concept and put the polish on it that's required. We definitely saw plenty of bugs with touch sensitivity and UI behavior, and have a lot of questions to ask, but the raw materials are really impressive. You can't completely get a feel for something as complex as a modern smartphone OS in a couple of minutes or even hours of use -- it's the kind of thing you need to live with. We're hopeful about what Microsoft has shown us, and think that as long as they stay as aware and realistic as they've been so far with Windows Phone 7, the possibilities for success are strikingly high.
Hubs and apps
Microsoft has made it clear that we haven't seen everything from Windows Phone 7 yet -- particularly in the application department -- but here's a look at what we have been given access to, and brief descriptions of the software's functionality:
People hub: Pulls in contacts from Gmail, Exchange, Facebook, Twitter, Windows Live and others, aggregating contact information, status updates, and contact images into a single view (or views, really). The main view of this hub keeps your most recently or heavily contacted people in first view dynamically (though this can be customized as well), and allows you to quickly jump to feeds of your recent updates from social networks aggregated by Windows Live. There's also a section here called "me" where you can view and edit your own statuses within your networks.
Pictures hub: An aggregate of your locally stored photos, cloud-based Facebook, Windows Live, or other connected picture galleries, and feeds of your contacts' recently updated images. The pictures hub will also allow you to upload and comment on photos on services like Facebook natively inside of the hub experience.
Games hub: Integrates with Xbox LIVE, including the housing of a miniature version of your avatar (in 3D and everything), Xbox LIVE games and achievements, Spotlight feeds, and the ability to browse gamer profiles. Microsoft hasn't shown any games yet, but has made mention of Facebook-style turn-based casual games being part of the equation. It's our impression that these devices have the horsepower to push pretty decent gaming experiences, and the integration with Xbox and its ecosystem is being taken very seriously by the folks in Redmond. We hope the fruit of this union will focus on more than just users hoping to play Sudoku on their phone. This should be an easy one to not screw up.
Music + Video hub: It's a Zune HD in your phone. Seriously. It's exactly like the Zune HD experience. You're able to utilize Zune Pass here too, including the ability to browse and download new music over WiFi and 3G. Video is a go too, and we assume that means rentals as well as purchases, but it's still unclear how this will interact with your desktop, Xbox, or Media Center setup. Furthermore, Microsoft is working with partners like Pandora to integrate with the hub, utilizing the Zune player to tap into Pandora's streaming service.
Marketplace hub: We've heard the least about this one so far, Microsoft is promising big things at MIX10, but we get the impression that when it comes to getting apps for these devices, the company is going to bring a much more Zune or Xbox like experience to the process. Based on the photos we've seen (which haven't been officially issued by Microsoft), the Marketplace looks nothing like the app-purchasing scheme on current Windows Mobile devices -- and that's an incredibly good thing.
Office hub: Microsoft's bread and butter, but so far we've just seen the hub itself -- none of its deeper functionality like document editing. There's an emphasis on OneNote and SharePoint Workspace that should be pretty interesting, however. Ultimately, based on the new UI paradigms and user experience directives of Windows Phone 7 Series, Microsoft is going to have to rebuild these applications from the ground up. As long as they're able to make them super functional while keeping the Metro look intact, this should be a real win -- we're still curious as to how the company plans to cram all that information into a UI which is focused on doing away with visual noise. Hopefully MIX10 will shed some light on this as well.
And all the rest...
Email: Relies on the pivot to switch between message views (unread / flagged / etc.), and has a color-coded system for differentiating between work and personal messages. Hopefully there's an option to un-mix multiple inboxes as well, but it's unclear so far. Multiple message management is onboard here, thankfully, though there's also a lot of negative space in the app, which is a bit of a concerning (if beautiful) trend throughout the UI. We don't expect any deep integration with services like Gmail beyond the contact syncing... though if Microsoft could pull labeling, archiving, and threaded messages off here, we can think of at least one editor who would be seriously inclined to switch to this platform.
Calendar: One of the odder apps visually, it almost looks like a DOS UI, with a white-on-black / primary color presentation. There are differentiations for specific types of data, such as red and blue notation for personal items and work. As we said earlier, this is weirdly one of the most striking applications on the phone, with lots of interesting functionality tied to its visual elements, like little lines in the day boxes which represent appointments when you're zoomed out to a month view.
SMS: It's barebones so far, but supports SMS and MMS, and it appears that the keyboard can be rotated to landscape for text entry. Let's hope that's an option in most places where input is required.
Phone: Even barer bones. Chromeless is in full effect here.
Internet Explorer: This is a big one, and Microsoft claims to have something newer and more based on the desktop IE than the current Windows Mobile / Zune browser. Features include multitouch pinch-to-zoom, "tabbed" browsing, and a new text rendering engine that brings supports sub pixel positioning for text. It's not as fast as we'd like just yet, but Microsoft has more than half a year to work out the kinks, and at least the page rendering is accurate.
Bing search: Search has contextual use in most apps, but from the Start menu it pulls up a separate, dedicated Bing app. When you search, Bing will try to decide what sort of search you're doing and present an appropriate set of results -- local results instead of web pages if you're looking for sushi, for instance. You can pivot between views, naturally, and the results are presented in the standard Windows Phone UI instead of just a mobile browser version of Bing.
Bing Maps: Addresses throughout the phone are turned into hyperlinks that can pull up Bing maps (phone numbers and email addresses are also intelligently discovered by the OS and made linkable), which includes pinch to zoom navigation and an auto-switch from map to satellite view at a certain zoom level. Microsoft is really pushing geolocation here, though we assume users will be given an option on whether or not they want to be found.
Windows Mobile legacy
So, where does this leave existing Windows Mobile users? Well, your phone still works, and since Microsoft has eliminated any sort of clear upgrade path, we're guessing there will be a pretty vibrant community of non-upgraders who will develop for and support existing Windows Mobile devices for years to come. Microsoft itself is positioning Windows Phone 7 Series primarily for consumers right now, which means it also has an interest in keeping Windows Mobile alive and well supported for the enterprise -- not to mention the slew of new Windows Mobile 6.5.3 devices it's pushing at MWC right this minute. Any reports of the death of Windows Mobile are greatly exaggerated, but it's also not an exaggeration to say that Microsoft has gone "scorched earth" in developing toward its primary future in phones.
Partners and developers
On the developer side, Microsoft seems to be acutely aware of how badly it needs to come big on the app and software front. Every indication we got from team members in Barcelona led us to believe that they are focusing a tremendous amount of energy and thought on what the next step for them from a developer standpoint will be. One thing Microsoft has always prided itself on was developer love (c'mon, we've all seen the video), but in recent years the company seems to have taken a backseat while Apple has been blowing everyone away with its easy-to-code, easy-to-market solution for software on the iPhone and iPod touch. Microsoft will have to deliver a solution here that is not only competitive, but more attractive than the competition. We were told countless times that we would get a clearer picture on a lot of the nerdier queries we had at the upcoming MIX10 (which happens in mid-March). Until that event comes and goes, we're not sure we'll get a lot more clarity on that.
The rest is in the hands of Microsoft's developers, however. So far we've seen barely skin deep into the new OS, and witnessed plenty rough edges in even what was presented. We've been here before: Palm wowed the world with its revolutionary webOS UI, but a tight release deadline left quite a bit of functionality on the cutting room floor, and perhaps too many bugs, hiccups and slowdowns for a shipping OS. Microsoft has less than a year to pull this thing into fighting shape, and we'll be tracking every step of the way, with particular curiosity about the what sort of finished product we'll end up with on the other side.
Additional reporting and research by Paul Miller