For the first time I’m not starting this with an author’s note! Oh, wait. Damnit.
So, we’ve finally got some concrete details about the future of Microsoft operating systems on mobile devices. I’m impressed with some of what Microsoft have done; Requiring minimum device specifications is clever, and stops underpowered devices giving WP7S a bad name. A greater focus on usability and interface is a no-brainer, and the Zune and Xbox Live integration is a godsend. However, I see a lot of potential flaws and downsides that mean my next phone won’t be running a Microsoft OS. And that kinda sucks for them, because I’m a young consumer, the exact kind of market Microsoft should be targeting. Then again, I’m not exactly normal.
Firstly, the name. “Windows Phone 7 Series.” It’s… actually kind of terrible. Not only is it a bit of a mouthful, with an acronym worse than “L4D2”, but it’s slightly confusing. It implies that this is the 7th generation of Windows Phone, which is technically true, but doesn’t represent the clean break they are trying to make. Additionally, the “series” part makes it seem like there’s going to be multiple versions, something they haven’t mentioned. A “series” would be better as branding for a, well, series of high-spec devices Microsoft want to promote. It might be that Microsoft were trying to build on the success of Windows 7 by using the 7 to make people associate the new OS with the first universally hailed Windows OS for some time, but if that was the idea, they’d have been better going with “Windows 7 Phone”, as it suggests a direct relationship, something Microsoft would be wise to promote. As it is, “Windows Phone 7 Series” just seems too confusing and wordy, especially compared with the likes of “WebOS” and “Android”.
Now, onto the good points. If we harken back to my début column for this site (ignore the iPad article), which happened to be about what Microsoft needed to do to make their next mobile OS a success, we’ll see that they’ve actually done a lot of the things I recommended, although of course they will have been working on these features LONG before I wrote that. So what HAVE Microsoft done right? Reinventing the brand is a mostly good thing in itself, since Windows Mobile had attracted a lot of dislike, which would have continued to plague any new OS under the same name. Additionally, a UI redesign was in order, along with a rewriting of the “back end” of the OS. The addition of 3D games and integration of the Zune and Xbox brands is a fantastic way to get younger customers, who might otherwise have chosen the iPhone.
Microsoft’s new UI does look really pretty. It’s simple and in a way understated, with flashy effects taking a back seat to obviously accessible information and controls. From what we’ve seen, Microsoft have made good use of 2D space, with multiple screens of grouped information presented side-by-side in the hubs, in a way that’s a little reminiscent of recent TouchFLO 3D and SenseUI GUI elements. There is nothing “Windows Mobile” about the UI at all; it’s all new, with everything being redesigned to be unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s going to take some time to see if different means better, though; the iPhone’s UI has remained loved despite being essentially a grid which hasn’t changed for three years,WebOS’s main UI is based entirely off it’s multitasking capabilities, and Android is all about the widgets. Each shares a few common things; an omnipresent bar at the top giving system information, a grid of icons and shortcuts somewhere within the UI, a lock screen displaying the time and something you interact with on the touchscreen to unlock the phone. WP7S is such a radical break from conventions that I can see the learning curve putting some people off. On a more personal note, I actually dislike what I’ve seen of the UI; it’s pretty and all, and I’m sure I could come to like it, but I prefer SenseUI on WinMo for the way information is presented and interacted with, as well as the general look and feel of the interface. But that’s entirely subjective, and your mileage may vary.
Secondly, we’ve got a lot more integration with existing Microsoft ecosystems. It’s something I called for, something that Microsoft could be offering to a greater extend than Google or Apple (Especially since MobileMe was pretty much universally considered a failure at launch, plagued with issues including some pretty serious ones). The level of integration announced so far looks promising; Xbox live and Zune support, continuation of Windows Mobile’s exchange synchronisation, and support for third party services such as Pandora, and various social networking services. The Zune integration is great news, especially if it brings the Zune Pass service to users outside America. It’s also nice to know that Windows phones will finally be usable as media players without relying on third party software.
Xbox Live integration, however, is a much bigger step. How many people in the UK own zunes? How many have even heard of them? Not that many. On the other hand, pretty much everyone’s heard of the Xbox 360, and I’d say that in my experience it’s the console that gets the most attention, although the PS3 is catching up. Integration of the friends and gamercard system is nice, but the real star here is the ability to share progress in XNA games on your WP7S device, your 360 and your PC. It’s another feature I thought of myself, and it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before, although you can see why it would have been impractical, due to the different specifications of the devices out there today.
This brings me on nicely to my next point; the new minimum specification. This is a mixed blessing; yes, it allows Microsoft to tightly control the specifications of every device running their OS, which is a good thing; no more underpowered handsets like the original Touch, no more missing camera buttons (Pretty much the only problem I have with my Touch Pro2), and a much greater sense of Microsoft identity and branding. But it ALSO means less diversity in devices available. Looks are going to be a bigger factor, as the base hardware will stop being so different between devices. Things like camera quality, screen technology and battery life will be pushed to the front, which can only be a good thing… but it will be accompanied by a reduction in the number of form factors available. To quote Engadget’s list of minumum specifications; “Large WVGA screen with a single aspect ratio (which means BlackBerry-style devices won’t be readily available to begin with)”. No landscape screens means no more HTC Snaps, and possibly no Touch Pro’s either, since the UI doesn’t seem to lend itself to landscape. It looks like I might not have been hasty in lamenting the death of the physical keyboard just a few weeks ago.
So relatively positive so far, on the whole. But I see Microsoft making a few serious mistakes here. They’re taking a clean break, which means no legacy support for Windows Mobile applications. This is going to hurt business users the most, who might have dedicated productivity applications or rely on software specific to their business. I know that I myself rely heavily on an application called zsIRC, which is updated rarely at best. Additionally, Microsoft haven’t discussed multitasking or sideloading of applications outside of their marketplace, two important features; lack of emphasis on previously lauded features of Windows Mobile leads me to believe that they’re not going to be there, not in the same way they are now, and this saddens me.
The other major issue I have is with the fact that Microsoft has announced that there won’t be any new third party skins or new interfaces. Let that sink in. That means no more SenseUI, no more… Well, it means no more SenseUI. But it’s deeper than that. It means that if a company wanted to make a device in a different orientation, they couldn’t reskin the OS to fit the new orientation. There can’t be custom areas of the OS relating to specific hardware features. Of course, there’s a silver lining; it SHOULD mean no more operator specific branding, but knowing those heartless, faceless corporations, they’ll find a way anyway.
Microsoft have done a lot of things right, so far. Since I was off being charitable in South Africa I missed my chance to go with Gears to MWC and see the OS myself, but the previews I’ve seen look pretty nice. There’s obviously a lot of work that needs to go into the OS before it’s anywhere near ready for primetime, but the bare bones of a good OS are there. However, it’s not the OS Windows Mobile was and is. It’s a totally different beast, aimed squarely at a different part of the market. And I guess that leaves me with Android and WebOS fighting for my heart.