Preview Primer: Hands-On with Windows Phone 7

While the big news today is that all 90,000 Microsoft employees will get a free Windows Phone 7 (WP7), it was the WP7 prototype making the rounds with reviewers that generated all the buzz earlier in the week.

After Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) quietly passed out a handful of mobile device prototypes running WP7 to some tech writers, previews based on hands-on evaluations started surfacing. And though initial reviews were mixed, the overall consensus is that WP7 has enough enterprise functionality to compete with Research In Motion's (NASDAQ: RIMM) BlackBerrys, has several stand-out features and a ground-breaking user interface.

Still, given how much market share Microsoft has lost, questions remain on if WP7, slated to ship in October, is enough to make Microsoft a viable contender again in the mobile sector. The stakes are high -- if WP7 is a failure, some industry observers believe it could permanently take Redmond out of the enterprise mobility race.

One of the first assessments of WP7 was published by InfoWorld, and was based on the writer's experience at a product demo, unlike the ones that followed by CNET, ZDNet, Gizmodo, Engadget, PC Magazine, Boy Genius Report and MobileCrunch, which were based on hands-on evaluations and were much more balanced.

Though the InfoWorld writer did not use the prototype, the InfoWorld article is worth mentioning because of claims made by the author.

The InfoWorld article vilified WP7, calling it a "disaster" and a "waste of time and money," and sparked some controversy as pundits refuted many points made in the story.

"The bottom line is this: Windows Phone 7 is a pale imitation of the 2007-era iPhone. It's as if Microsoft decided in summer 2007 to copy the iPhone and has shut its developers in a bunker ever since, so they don't realize that several years have passed, that the iPhone has advanced, and that competitors such as Google Android and Palm WebOS have also pushed the needle forward. Microsoft is stuck in 2007, with a smartphone OS whose feature checklist might match that era's iPhone but whose fit and finish would look like a Pinto next to a Maserati," writes Galen Gruman of InfoWorld.

A point-by-point rebuttal to the InfoWorld story cropped up soon after, by Paul Thurrott, at the blog Windows Phone Secrets. He applauds WP7 as being the best at combining both consumer and enterprise functionality in one mobile device.

"Windows Phone is not the same kind of phone, or a copy of the iPhone at all. In fact, the Windows Phone interaction model is so unique and innovative, and it’s global access to online services information so seamless, they’re not really even the same kind of device. (Or in the same league.) Yes, they both make phone calls. But the iPhone is a mini-PC, where you jump in and out of apps to get things done. You do the hard work of remembering which app does what. With Windows Phone, properly-written apps can blend seamlessly into more general experiences," counters Thurrott.

Meanwhile, the other reviews involved authors using a prototype from Samsung codenamed "Taylor" running WP7. From these mostly positive evaluations it appears that improvements have been made to the touchscreen experience since it first debuted, the email support is well integrated, the camera is a tad better than others on mobile devices and the keyboard is fantastic, which is important for business users.

"Who the (heck) did Microsoft hire to make this keyboard? Because whatever they’re being paid, they deserve a raise. I’ve got no idea what sort of sorcery Microsoft used to build this thing, but it rocks. I’ve typed the character-count equivalent of a novel or two on just about every smartphone platform’s software keyboard, and this … this just might be the best one," writes Greg Kumparak at MobileCrunch.com.

Hot or Not: Metro and Hub UI, Mobile Web Experience

The two features that drew mixed opinions are the user interface and the Web browser's lack of HTML 5 support, to date. While most of the reviewers liked the text-based Metro UI and hubs, they also voiced concern that it will takes users some time to master it, though they applauded Microsoft for taking a radically different approach.

"Getting around the OS really comes down to three main sections: the homepage "tiles," (a list of glance-able information, updates, and favorite apps or people), the application list (an alphabetical list of all your applications), and the "hub" pages (really a kind of in between point that's sandwiched between a full on app and a menu). We found the overall navigation of the UI to be really quite intuitive, despite the fact that a good number of options and in-app menus are accessible only through a long press... "Once you get into the habit of holding down on items instead of wildly searching for the next screen or tile, it makes a lot of sense, but it does take some getting used to," writes Joshua Topolsky at Engadget.

(Earlier in the year leaks at Engadget revealed that Dell is working on a WP7 slider phone called Lightning, due out in the fourth quarter.)

Tech blog Boy Genius Report (BGR) took issue with the lack of an application switcher in the UI: "One last thing that really bugs us with the UI is that there is no application switcher. At all. On a BlackBerry you can hold the BlackBerry key, on Android devices you can hold the Home key, and on the iPhone you can double tap the home button. Just simply navigating back, back, back, back and back doesn’t really cut it, and during every day usage, it got tired quick," writes the author of WP7 preview post.

Overall, however, most liked the WP7 UI, including Matthew Miller at ZDNet, who writes, "The user interface is completely different than any other smartphone operating system and is a nice, refreshing change. It helps that this current Technical Preview of WP7 flies with fluid animations, switching between tasks, and diving into hubs and apps.

"I understand that multitasking like we saw in Windows Mobile 6.5 is not supported, but honestly I never even noticed since the Zune part plays fine in the background, email still gets pushed to my device when doing other things... When the third party application market takes off then the lack of multitasking may be a problem, but at this time I am not concerned with it since the operating system is designed for helping you complete tasks and is not focused on distinct application experiences."

As for the browser experience, evaluations said the prototype handled lots of common tasks well, though it may not be on par with the competition.

"Mobile Web is such a huge part of smartphones nowadays, and fortunately, Windows Phone 7 provides a relatively good browsing experience, certainly much improved from Windows Mobile. The Internet Explorer browser offers support for up to six windows and thumbnail views of all open pages, so you can easily toggle back and forth. You can also bookmark sites, and if you feel like it, you can pin pages to the Start screen for easier access.

"Now, for the bad news. As of right now, there's no support for Flash, Silverlight, or HTML5, so despite taking several steps forward, Windows Phone 7's also several steps behind the competitors. There's some consolation in the fact that Adobe did say at Mobile World Congress that it's working with Microsoft to bring Flash to the browser, but it just won't be in time for the holiday launch," according to the WP7 article by CNET's Bonnie Cha.

On the social networking front, Facebook integration gets high marks, though the lack of Twitter support, except through Windows Live, was flagged as a negative.

Also seen as a huge drawback is WP7's lack of cut-and-paste, but some reviewers think Microsoft will either have it by launch or will offer it with an update shortly after.

All Eyes on WP7 Launch for Rescuing Redmond

In the end, Microsoft still has to overcome a lot of obstacles to make WP7 a success. "WP7's introduction and market positioning will be seminal for Microsoft, to the upside, or to the downside. A significant success could restore morale among Microsoft's employees, partners and customers. If it merely establishes a toehold, that could be very positive too -- just look at Bing for evidence of this. But if WP7 flops, it could cause irreparable damage to a company that is already diminished in the mobile and consumer space, a space which is becoming ever more influential on the enterprise arena that is Microsoft’s bread and butter.

"A WP7 flop could come even if Microsoft does everything right with the product. Many people have true disdain for Microsoft, and at least some of these people need to be won over. That's hard when the hatred runs so deep and the loyalty to other players seems to impenetrable," writes Andrew J. Brust at RedDevNews.com.

Also expressing uncertainty about if WP7 is enough to put Microsoft back in the running is BGR. "It’s a decent mashup of some already pioneered features like aggregated status updates linked with your contacts, customizable homescreens, and a mobile apps and music marketplace, but we’re not sure that’s enough to push WP7 ahead of the three big juggernauts. It’s a fantastic featurephone, but as a truly competitive smartphone platform, we’re just not sure at this point in time."


Microsoft, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, RIM, mobile os