Microsoft “Gets” it Again With Windows Phone 7


At last Monday’s Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, Microsoft took the wraps off their next generation Windows operating system for their mobile division dubbed Windows Phone 7 Series. Ever since the wildly popular iPhone OS hit the scene in June 2007, Microsoft has been sitting on the edge of its seat, waiting to retaliate with an interface that is finger-touch friendly. As pundits continued to flake on the Redmond-based company’s Windows Mobile 6.5x variations, their market share continued to slide. A comScore survey conducted late last year revealed that the Windows Mobile smartphone OS market share had fallen to third place, while the iPhone advanced to second place, and RIM’s BlackBerry continued to reign supreme.

Windows Mobile phones, much like BlackBerries, have long been known for their enterprise usage and hardly for their ability to integrate music, video and other web-centric social services such as Facebook and Twitter effectively. While the iPhone has helped push developers in the right direction, few have even approached the friendliness and ease of use that has made the iPhone shine.

With Windows Phone 7 Series, Microsoft plans to rewrite their mobile history. Building on the success of their entertainment divisions that include the Xbox 360 and Zune HD, Windows Phone 7 Series looks to be the culmination of the best of both of those spectacular products. The result is a product that, like the iPhone, merges all the growing connections that we have come to require in our digital lives.

When the Zune HD launched last September, few picked it up and even fewer knew how well thought out the user interface was. As every company has tried to emulate the iPhone’s UI, Microsoft put a pop culture spin on the Zune HD UI, combining post-modern menus that run off the screen with slickly animated navigation screens, giving the device a futuristic feel with an emphasis on “textual” menus instead of a confusing mess of icons like those on the Apple product. Throw in a web browser that works nearly as well as Mobile Safari, plus a beautifully thin yet “rugged-looking” industrial design, and the Zune HD should have hit the iPod touch right on the mark, maiming it. But it didn’t. The Zune HD is an example of where great ideas fail to become the de facto standard.

Windows Phone 7 Series sports a UI that is very similar to the Zune HD. Gone are the hierarchical windows and drop down menus that are clunky and make for difficult navigation. In it are flat colored squares devoid of excessive decorations, simply displaying relevant information such as unread e-mails, missed calls, updates on Xbox Live (WP7 has Xbox Live integration), Facebook notifications, etc. All of it is there on the main screen AND on the unlocked screen (Apple, take note of this for iPhone OS 4.0!).

The most exciting part about Windows Phone 7 Series are the “hubs.” Hubs are like panorama screens that you can scroll horizontally to access information. Most hubs will have cloud-integration, allowing constant updates to be pushed over the airwaves. Some hubs such as the People hub aggregates updates on your most connected contacts from a wide array of services such as social networks and e-mail, while others such as the Games hub manages your Xbox Live profile and lets you play games, while the Music + Video hub controls all of your multimedia.

I’m only scratching at the surface of Windows Phone 7 Series, but you get the general idea. Windows 7 Series won’t be released for another six months, but with the complete 180 degree turn that Microsoft is willing to make for their mobile OS, I have a feeling it’s going to be worth the wait. Six months is a plenty of time for the Microsoft folks to polish up the OS and make sure it is ready for primetime as well as to engage in effective marketing this time around to prevent another Zune HD sales blunder.

Hoping to clean up the the image that is the tarnished Windows Mobile brand, Microsoft is renaming Windows Mobile to Windows Phone Classic. Re-branding is always the simplest damage control method for erasing the past for products or services that have been laden with dissatisfaction. (Just look at Comcast’s recent re-branding of their cable and internet services to Xfinity.)

As someone who has yet to jump into the smartphone arena, I’m constantly monitoring the smartphone scene. Apple, Google, and RIM have been the big three who have been grabbing my attention, but Microsoft just shuffled the cards again. I’m so elated that when my contract ends in six months (perfect timing!), there is going to be a slew of new high-profile software and hardware available for sale. Competition always breeds innovation after all and I, for one, love that Microsoft is finally pushing back against the iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerries of the world.

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