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Windows Phone 7 series. Fire in the hole!

After spending a good bit of time standing in the line to get into a ball room where Microsoft were going to showcase their new Windows Phone 7, I didn't actually bother to think what mode I'd be in on my way out of the hall only 90 minutes later. And that wasn't because I knew that I wouldn't see anything new, or they'd fail miserably - I honestly believed that Microsoft would remain true to their ways and would only roll out a couple of minor face-lifts for the good old Windows Mobile. For some reason thoughts that the new WP 7 would turned out to be what many had been waiting from Microsoft for years, didn't even cross my mind. The doors opened and the 90 minute presentation kicked off.

Steve Ballmer's speech, as always brimming with emotions, warmed everyone up and gave us a sensation that something new was about to go down. But that's besides the point. The presentation started with a couple of slides stating that the mobile phone market is oversaturated with both phones and applications, and their numbers keep growing - big surprise. And then they switched to the introduction of Windows Phone 7 Series. So what is it?

It's a completely new operating system from Microsoft for mobile devices, and the only thing it's got in common with the previous versions of Windows Mobile is that it's an OS for mobile devices, and that's about it. It's got a new kernel, new menu structure, new name, new user interface. After so much deliberation and down time Microsoft finally rolled out a brand-new system, while cutting off all its connections with the predecessors.

Windows Phone 7 hinges on the idea of hubs - each one of them represents one specific type of functions. There is a separate screen that allows the user to jump right to one of the hubs or applications.

The home screen displays all kinds of information: new messages, mail, missed calls, time, battery charge, photos and so on, and I bet it'll be completely customizable.

And then there are hubs. If you click on Contacts, you'll get into the contact list, whose layout is completely the same as that of any other menu - they've finally made them all not only ergonomically friendly, but also identical design-wise. Huge picture and huge text - now we're talking.

And this, in my opinion, is one of the primary novelties in Windows Phone 7 - something that neither iPhone OS, nor Android or Symbian have. The entire user interface here utilizes an exceedingly simple, yet efficient layout: large picture, large headline and that's it, no tiny thumbnails or shortcuts or links that you never manage to hit with your fingertips. But let's get back to contacts. They are displayed in a plain list - name on the right, picture on the left. As soon as you click on some particular entry, the screen will "slide" leftwards, revealing the right portion of the display housing a detailed contact profile.

Then from the same screen you'll be able to view the log of all your calls and conversations with this contact, messages, his activity in social services. For the record: HTC have been using this concept in their phonebook for a year new, and Samsung have just introduced it in their Bada platform, so that's nothing to shout about.

The next hub - Images. No bells and whistles here, any contemporary OS offers a decent application for viewing images, and now Windows Phone 7 has one too, much more user-friendly than what they had before, by the way.

You can view your images in a grid, filter them, browse categories, tag them, add comments and so on.

Office hub. That's where all office tools reside, naturally - each document type (presentations, notes, documents) has its own tab.

Fairly intuitive and straightforward - you won't get lost there, that's for sure.

Next up - "Music and Video" hub that plays host to the user's audio and video libraries. The owners of the Microsoft Zune HD will feel right at home there, and, to be honest, it seems Windows Phone 7 took a lot of design cues from the Zune HD interface.

The presentation also featured the system's new mail interface - all entries are displayed in a list with headlines and tiny snippets of text.

The top portion of all menus is occupied by the navigation panel featured with screens the user can jump to. And they've got large captions! Microsoft also showcased their browser app that didn't sport anything groundbreaking, but it had all the basic covered, plus featured multitouch functionality. No word on whether it employs tabbed interface or not, though.

As far as the Calendar goes, it seemed pretty functional and stunning looks-wise, much like all other components of Windows Phone 7.

The default keyboard, that you used to struggle with in all previous versions of Windows Mobile, and you're going to laugh here, is pretty sub-par in Windows Phone 7 too, although judging by what they demoed, it should be a tad less fiddly to use.

Games hub - it seems Windows Phone now boasts support for Xbox Live.

МPersonally, as someone who has never used this service, I can't really say much here, and what's more, I can't think of a way Windows Phone users will be able to benefit from that, as they probably will never stumble upon the users of Microsoft's Xbox. Although maybe they simply decided to give Nokia a small nudge for their attempts to develop N-Gage and constant failures in this field. We'll see whether or not Xbot Live support will make all the difference for the users of Windows Phone.

Another thing of not is that Windows Phone 7 will bring along a full-fledged PC synchronization app, that they failed to implement in Windows Vista. The new application allows copying music, video, images, browsing phone's system information, and playing around with synch schedule. Obviously they've put a handful of iTunes concepts to work here, but that doesn't make this application worse, especially compared to what it used to look like.

Compatibility with Windows Mobile 6 applications

The fears of many, unfortunately, have materialized. While previously there were a glimpse of hope that they would ensure compatibility of Windows Phone 7 with millions of applications for the previous versions of Windows Mobile, one way or another, now there is none. The new operating system hinges on a completely new kernel, that makes it impossible to have any sort of compatibility with older OS editions. How will this affect the market? Well, Microsoft have got a pair of golden scissors in their hands called "product life time cutter", and by "product" here we mean "Windows Mobile 6.5" and lower. Needless to say that they are more than likely to put them to work - throughout the entire 2010 we'll see them burning all the bridges between them and older versions of Windows Mobile, which means there'll be no new phones, or firmware updates or support.

Microsoft do realize that without third-party applications Windows Mobile 7 doesn't stand a change - its charm can't be the only selling point and sooner or later it'll lose the wow-effect and will pale in comparison to Android, iPhone OS and other platforms that have hundreds and thousands of apps at their disposal. And in this sense the 7 Series is a relatively new player that has to start everything from a scratch. They'll have to give their developer community an incentive to start churning out software for Windows Phone 7 and the easiest way to do that is to shut down the old Windows Mobile market. While it may seem unfair, it's a well-calculated and justified step.


I think many will agree with me that the new Windows Phone has got boatloads of what we have come to call "wow-effect" - its interface is dazzling and more importantly seems pretty user-friendly at a glance. But that's not the most important thing - finally, after so many years, Microsoft have found enough courage to show not a compilation of their competitors' ideas, but rather something of their own with a very unique face. There is no doubt that Microsoft is taking a lot of risks with it, but these are the risks they had to take to revive their mobile division. As far as I'm concerned, what we were shown at the MWC 2010 by Microsoft is one of the most prominent events in the entire mobile industry that stands in one line with Samsung's brand-new flagship.

However there are still a lot of questions to be answered - what WP 7's hardware requirements are going to be? Will it be flexible? How often will the system need to trade data with online servers? Will it be another bandwidth-hogging monster like the Apple iPhone or Android? This winter will see the first WP7-powered devices, maybe even earlier, so we'll just have to wait a little bit.

P.S. Interestingly, for many years the core of Windows Mobile's philosophy was that it allowed the user to employ this PC experience while working with his phone. In other words, Microsoft tried to convey the idea that It was the same Windows that could fit into your pocket. During the Windows Phone 7 presentation one of the speakers repeated the following phrase around 5 times: "normally, you'd perform this action on a PC like that, but we're dealing here with a phone, right? So for Windows Phone 7 we have come up with the following thing…". Things change, what can you say!

Artem Lutfullin (artem@mobile-review.com)
Published — 15 February 2010

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