Windows 7 Phone Series: Microsoft is doing something "new" and "original"?

Windows-7-Phone-SeriesJust four months after Windows Mobile 6.5 hit the market, Microsoft has officially introduced Windows Phone 7 Series, the new multitouch-capable mobile operating system designed to defeat Apple’s iPhone.

We were all looking at the iPad and suddenly, Microsoft comes with this new, impressive, and I would dare to say “original” take on the mobile phones with a whole new OS. Yes, you read it well, I, the guy coming from Apple’s EvangeList, am saying Microsoft has done something “new” and “original”… How’s that? Read on to find out.

The new Microsoft Windows 7 Phone Series has a terrible name, but looks amazing. Microsoft mobile market share has been free falling since the iPhone introduction, while Android made things just worse for them. The software giant had to take action and they did by reinventing their mobile experience from scratch and for once, they didn’t just copy Apple.

“In a crowded market filled with phones that look the same and do the same things, I challenged the team to deliver a different kind of mobile experience,” Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said. “Windows Phone 7 Series marks a turning point toward phones that truly reflect the speed of people’s lives and their need to connect to other people and all kinds of seamless experiences.”

Apple’s iPhone has a static home screen that shows you a list of apps. Period. It has a customizable dock on which you’ll surely want to keep the Phone and Messages apps, leaving you just 2 spaces for quick access to other features. The App Store has outgrown the OS interface so much that I have 10 pages of apps on my device, and in many cases, Spotlight won’t be enough to help me find what I need (how can I recall 160 app names?). Of corse, you can keep everything organized using iTunes and keep on the first page of your phone the most used apps, but that is kind of cumbersome.

Microsoft is not likely to have this problem right now: their marketplace isn’t even comparable, and whatever they do to attract developers, their platform hasn’t the market share, sales traction and revenue promises to get developers attention. They know it, and they didn’t bet on that: if you look at the new Windows 7 Phone Series, you will hardly see where the 3rd parties apps fit in the mix.

Instead, their bet is on the social aspect of the phone. They made their platform a hub of all the social activities: live Facebook (and Windows Live) status updates, photos, location aware internet searches. And they populated the home screen with lots of quick access “badge-able” buttons (recent calls, messages, unread e-mail, people…). The new software’s “Start” screen includes constantly updated “live tiles” that show users real-time content. Microsoft has touted these as “breaking the mold of static icons that serve as an intermediate step on the way to an application.”

For example, creating a tile for a contact would allow live updates on the person, such as newly uploaded Facebook photos or status updates. The information could be gleaned from the Start page without ever loading an application.

Windows Phone 7 Series includes “integrated services” that Microsoft has dubbed “Hubs.” These are divided into six categories that aim to make it easy for users to gather information: People, Pictures, Games, Music + Video, Marketplace, and Office.

They added to the mix a bunch of eye candy… animations, effects, items scrolling at different speeds. Everything says “look, I’m amazing and your iPhone doesn’t do any of this”.

The six hubs in Windows Phone 7 Series were selected because they represent the activities and information that are most important to people, Microsoft said. The following is a breakdown of the hubs included in the new software:

  • People: Ties in live feeds from social networks and photos to contacts. Includes a central place to post updates to Facebook and Windows Live.
  • Pictures: Allows users to share photos and videos with a social network. Also integrates with the Web and PC, allowing users to view their entire picture and video collection.
  • Games: Connects with Xbox Live and plays games. Allows users to see a gamer’s Xbox Live avatar, achievements and gamer profile.
  • Music + Video: Brings “the best of Zune,” Microsoft said, to the mobile phone. Includes online music services, syncing with content from a PC, and a built-in FM radio. Also connects with Zune Social for sharing music.
  • Marketplace: Microsoft’s own app store gives access to certified applications and games.
  • Office: Offers access to Microsoft Office, oneNote and SharePoint Workspace. Users can read, edit and share documents. Also offers access to Outlook Mobile.

Microsoft is building this targeting the 2010 holiday season, and is not compromising: no phone on the market today will run this. They built all this targeting the latest and greatest hardware available this year. The new OS comes with a new, specific hardware design that has 3 buttons: start, search and back. The dedicated Bing button will allow one-click access to search from anywhere within the phone. Integration with Bing search allows the system to automatically locate the user and allows them to conduct a local search.

The Start button is all about branding: it has the windows logo. You won’t need to dig into the phones specs to get what OS that model is running.

Microsoft has partnered with a number of carriers and manufacturers around the world to bring the first Windows Phone 7 Series handsets to market later this year. Mobile operators include AT&T, Deutsche Telekom AG, Orange, SFR, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Telstra, T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone. Manufacturers include Dell, Garmin-Asus, HTC Corp., HP, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Qualcomm Inc.

All we have to look at now are screenshots and a couple of videos on YouTube. The platform looks very promising and is finally giving people something else that is worth too look at as a “different” alternative to the iPhone.

Now let’s look at the doubts for a minute.

Live updates on the home screen: that is awesome… but how will that affect battery life?
We have people turning off push notifications on the iPhone for that reason, so what drain will these live updates represent? Is this done through a similar technology (one connection to get all updates) or will this use multiple connections to multiple servers for different sources of contents?

Will the home screen be customizable? It looks like 3rd parties applications will be able to add new “live” elements to the home screen. If that is the case, what degree of customization will be possible? How much control will the user have on what is happening on the device?

How did they solve multi-tasking and application switching? Did they design everything in the OS to be as polished and refined as this front-end they are showing off or behind it we’ll find a “C prompt” thing and a scary “task manager”?

Will 3rd parties develop for this device?
Microsoft is moving toward XBox Live integration. At the time they entered the console market, the software giant acquired several smaller games development companies (including the Mac games developer Bungie, that became famous on the XBox thanks to the Halo series) — so they have the means to keep their marketplace filled with quality games and software even without opening the doors to third parties. I would expect the Windows 7 Phone Series marketplace to be populated by titles from bigger developers (namely Electronic Arts, Gameloft) rather then a place in which an Indie can make a living. Microsoft is already including Office in the mix, so I doubt they will attract many productivity apps developers.

Will Apple catch up?
We are waiting for a major release in June (iPhone OS 4). Apple now has 3 very different devices to support with their OS (a phone, a music player and an ebook reader)… Will they effort spread too thin to keep up with the competition? Is there something in Jobs hat that will blow this away?