Windows Phone 7: New, Useful and Very Likable

Don't faint in disbelief. But me, the avid iPod Touch user, I'm getting excited about Windows Phone 7. With the major caveat that the operating system is in early beta and the hardware it runs on is a custom prototype for use by Microsoft employees, I like what I've seen so far.

Last night, I got a chance to spend some time with an early prototype and talk to several members of the Windows Phone 7 team for a couple of hours. The new operating system uses a radically different approach to organizing information and apps. It will take some getting used to, but I think there's a good chance that Microsoft is on to something powerful and that will bring real innovation that matters to the mobile market.

It could be as significant as Apple's original iPhone was, though I don't think for a minute that Windows Phone 7 is an iPhone-killer. But it's the first new major mobile platform that actually innovates in significant ways from the iPhone. Sorry, but Palm's WebOS and Google's Android are at best minor variations of what the iPhone brought to the table in 2007. They're me-too products, with some enhancements and some drawbacks. They don't break new ground, simply develop part of the ground that Apple broke. By contrast, Windows Phone 7 seems to be a truly new animal.

A New Approach to Working in Mobile
What's compelling about Windows Phone 7 (despite that awkward name) is the concept of decks that bring together information streams. Although the iPhone made the mobile experience accessible and compelling, it's still based on the desktop metaphor of having application icons arrayed (on a home screen rather than in a Start or Apple menu or on a desktop, but that's just a cosmetic difference). You go to the app you want and launch it, then switch to the next app.

What Windows Phone 7 does is let you organize by area of interest. Each deck lets you have whatever cards you want related to the deck's theme. So, for the People deck, you might have cards for your spouse, best friend, fantasy baseball team, favorite movie star, and your boss and direct reports at the office. These decks pull in information from the sources you define, such as Facebook, Twitter feeds, and your company SharePoint discussions, so you see what is happening with each person at a glance. You don't traverse apps to gather this piecemeal; the phone does it for you, treating the information from your source apps almost as feeds. Behind the glossy visuals that Microsoft likes to demonstrate is a different metaphor for staying updated and connected.

You can get a rough idea of the Windows Phone 7 approach by watching Microsoft's own demo, but I don't believe any of us will truly get what this new approach means in practice until we've used one for at least a few days. I can't wait.

Microsoft's public presentations focus on social media uses, but I'll bet the "keep updated at a glance via decks" concept can be extended powerfully to many other uses, from monitoring projects, conversations, clients, and the like -- oh and all your personal stuff like finances, entertainment, games, and soccer team events.

Using the familiar Favorites metaphor, you can pin apps and cards to decks, as well as to the home screen. And yes, you can access the apps the old-fashioned way by going to an apps deck -- after all, not everything you do fits neatly into a category you want to monitor.

This approach is different -- and kudos to Microsoft for really thinking outside the box and bringing a different approach to the table. After years of hearing about "we listen to our customers and pay close attention to user experience," only to see Frankenstein monsters like Windows Mobile 6 and Windows Vista as a result, it's refreshing to witness the company stop putting lipstick on a pig that it pretends doesn't exist and actually do something new. It actually went outside the barnyard.

A Needed Break from the Past
It's significant that Windows Phone 7 is not compatible with even the new Windows Mobile 6.5's applications. Any Windows Mobile apps you developed or use will have to be at least retargeted, if not rewritten, notes Charlie Kindel, Microsoft's partner group program manager for the Windows Phone App Platform. (It depends on how they were written and how much the underlying logic is separate from the presentation layer.)

That's good news. The muddled legacy of Windows Mobile would have created a Jekyll-and-Hyde experience at best on Windows Phone 7, as your apps switched between "classic" and "modern" modes. Or backward compatibility with Windows Mobile would have perpetuated the Frankenstein graft of multiple creatures, making Windows Phone 7 just the latest muddle. Microsoft needed to start fresh, so kudos for doing so.

If you use Windows Mobile, Kindel says Microsoft will continue to support it for a few years at least. That'll be important if you're using Windows Mobile apps for specialty uses, such as pharmacy sales management, package delivery, photocopier servicing, and all the wonderfully niche areas for which phone-less Windows Mobile devices have been used for years. It's not clear whether these specialty applications need their own platform; they used to be a big deal on the early Windows Mobile, Palm OS, and Symbol Technologies platforms, but these have all largely faded away with companies continuing to use what they have pretty much as-is. Sort of like mainframes. (Scott Stanfield, CEO of mobile app development firm Vertigo, says his firm now gets very little requests to work on such old-guard apps.)

It may be that modern devices running iPhone OS, WebOS, or Android OS can do these jobs if the required apps are ported or redeveloped. What is clear is that Windows Phone 7 won't be the platform you're likely to use for such apps, for the simple reason that Microsoft has no current intention to allow nonphone devices -- and the devices these apps run on are decidedly not phones. (Take a look at what your UPS carrier or the guy checking inventory at your local Sears uses. There is no phone capability.) Kindel tells me that Microsoft will monitor what these specialty customers do, then decide whether it makes sense to advance Windows Mobile as a separate field force platform, extend the Windows Phone 7 platform to include nonphone devices, or just let this market go. The timeframe for this decision is probably a couple of years out, he notes. My bet is it'll be one of the latter two options.

Don't Be Put Off by the Consumer Focus
Microsoft is pushing the Windows Phone 7 platform very much as a consumer device, with extensive marketing focus on Xbox Live-style gaming, social media usage, and Zune music and video playback. One drawback: There is no Mac desktop client for Zune, which will prevent adoption by many technology opinion leaders and give the iPhone a natural bulwark against Windows Phone 7. Microsoft really needs a Zune desktop client for the Mac or a deal that lets Windows Phone 7's Zune work with iTunes on the Mac desktop. Hey, maybe Apple and Microsoft can do some horse trading, with Microsoft offering cheaper or free licensing for Exchange ActiveSync -- which Mac OS X and iPhone OS rely on -- in return for iTunes compatibility or helping in porting the Zune desktop. Casey McGee, a Windows Phone 7 product marketing manager, tells me he's heard the requests for Mac support several times already, so maybe Microsoft will make it happen. After all, it's already made one of the core app dev technologies used by Windows Phone 7, Silverlight, available for the Mac.

Despite Microsoft's consumer focus in its PR, don't forget that Windows Phone 7 will also come with a version of Microsoft Office and should have the same kind of enterprise security and manageability that businesses have long relied on and expect from a Microsoft mobile device. (Kindel did dodge my question on whether Exchange ActiveSync policy management and other security and management features would be the same as for Windows Mobile, responding instead that Microsoft knows those businesses' needs and is committed to supporting them. That's usually vendor-speak for "it'll be close enough.")

One nice feature: Windows Phone 7 will support multiple Exchange accounts. Take that, iPhone!

And the Windows Phone 7 version of Office is not yet in a state that Microsoft is comfortable in presenting it. One issue with today's mobile devices is that they're mediocre in working with basic documents, so you can't use them as a short-term substitute for a computer when on the go. The Documents to Go productivity suite for the BlackBerry and the Quickoffice suite for the iPhone are the best of the lot, but they're not good enough for regular use. Maybe that's not their fault but a limitation of the mobile form factor and its constraints on input, display, and processing that just don't support what document editing requires.

That's why Apple's decision to develop a version of its iWork productivity suite for the forthcoming iPad so intrigued me -- that form factor could let you have your mobility cake with your productivity apps à la mode. But Apple's apparent stupid decision not to support Office export from the iPad's iWork means that 98 percent of the world will likely never know.

So will Office for Windows Phone 7 break new ground in allowing productivity app usage in a handheld device? I wish I knew. I'll let you know when I find out.

Despite my early enthusiasm, I have to issue a reminder that Windows Phone 7 is not yet real, even though there are now actual prototypes to experiment with under controlled conditions. Still, I see potential for genuine innovation that could get the mobile market past its "let's all imitate the iPhone" phase. Fingers crossed!

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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