Eight years ago I popped into a local mobile phone shop and bought my first ever Windows Mobile handset. The name “Pocket PC” portrayed an image of hand-held computing – everything Windows could do, but on a phone with a stylus. The mobile market has since moved on at an unbelievable pace and, sometime between 2008 and 2009, Microsoft almost missed what was going on around them. The iPhone, whatever people may say, refined the way people perceived phones – it had auto-updating, an on-board store, music and media syncing. Microsoft were busy releasing Windows Mobile 6.5 – an OS that looked similar to earlier versions and performed in almost the same way it always did. Something had to change, and it needed to be a massive change.
We were invited this week to see Microsoft demo the all-new Windows Phone 7 Operating System. Inside the plush London offices we met with Oded Ran, the Head of Consumer Marketing for Windows Phone. He showed us the LG Prototype devices running the RTM version of the Windows Phone 7 OS. Although it’s not known what devices will look like yet, this was our first chance to see how the new software shaped up. Oded clearly loves what they’ve created here and it almost oozes out of him.
We also saw Seesmic for Windows Phone 7 – a Twitter client we all know and love, but now with some added gloss..
Oded explained that Microsoft were keen to get away from the “rows and rows of icons” that take the main portion of screen-time on other handsets. Their solution is a more “relational” experience that brings people the information they need, rather than a whole load of unnecessary detail. It’s not just big changes – there’s minor touches which add a little smile to your face. We found that the on-screen keyboard uses slight tone changes in the audio-feedback to let you know what you’re doing and that intentional screen-overlap subliminally lets you know that there’s more stuff on the next screen. You quickly find yourself searching and stumbling around a lot less.
First impressions can be a little misleading. The main screen is a row of tiles, the Facebook login is a black and white affair and it all seems a little “flat”. However, those tiles are alive and gently inform you about things you need to know. The last music track you listened to is there, the last picture you viewed, your favourite contacts, how many unread texts you have plus third-party apps like “Seesmic” have tiles and integrate into the contacts system on the phone. Click into your “Me” tile and you’ll be able to update your Facebook status, Twitter status or both at once. Microsoft don’t want people to have to switch to different apps to do different things, they want the phone to do the work so you don’t have to. It’s less “there’s an app for that” and more “there’s a phone for that”. The contacts system, for example, shows all your friends and colleagues as you’d expect. It’ll pull in your Facebook friends and all their details too – it’ll update the birthday information and who’s related to who. Then, rather cleverly, it’ll combine all the duplicates so you don’t end up with repeated information and details.
A full and complete reboot has happened. It might sound crazy, but Microsoft don’t want you to have to tweak and twiddle just to get stuff working. If you want to show your pictures, go to the pictures and it’ll show them all, no matter where they came from (Facebook, the phone itself, etc) – you can save your Facebook pictures locally if you wish.
The search function is intelligent. If you want to search and you type in “theatre” it’ll show you map results, reviews and nearby hotels and restaurants too. You don’t necessarily need to go into a separate maps application – this is just searching from the main screen, and you can save the search as a tile so that you can find that hotel, that restaurant and that theatre via GPS later, even if you don’t have internet access. The maps system is from Microsoft of course and there’s no “Street View” as with Google, but you do get aerial views plus there’s multi-touch and pinch / zoom functionality.
The Zune media experience was shown next and it quickly came apparent that this is a data-loving device. For £8.99 per month you can download and stream tracks and sync them with your Zune account – Oded fired up his laptop to show his media content on there too. It’ll import non-DRM MP3’s and sync it across. The experience was fluid and slick – album covers were displayed and, as mentioned earlier, the last song you played will be shown on the main screen.
We’ve read about what isn’t coming to Windows Phone. We’ve read about what it can’t do and there’s talk of this being a “Version 1.0”. However, I’m just a little puzzled. After spending just 30 minutes with the prototype phone I am impressed with the phone. It is a very good OS and it’s got some well-thought-out ideas. Why am I puzzled? Well, I just can’t understand why Microsoft haven’t shouted a little louder about this. Against the iPhone and Android it’s going to have a battle, but the same could be said about any new OS. It’s very data-centric and networks will need to provide the right tariffs – it could be easy to get carried away and pull lots of images and music onto your phone almost without realising.
This, despite what I may have thought earlier, is a huge improvement and I love the idea of integrating data and updates into the core OS, but I need to reserve judgement until we get to use one for a substantial length of time.
Click on to see the snaps we grabbed and our visit to Microsoft in London.
Link – Windows Phone 7 Hands-on