Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series: A hard reset of its mobile business
Windows Phone 7, due by "holiday 2010," scraps just about the entire Windows Mobile infrastructure: the underlying operating system, the user interface, the existing stock of applications and the desktop sync software. Given the woeful mediocrity of Microsoft's current Windows Mobile 6.5 release (unveiled with considerable promise just under a year ago), that drastic change of course may be the Redmond, Wash., software firm's only option.
In a press conference at the Mobile World Congress convention in Barcelona -- it's viewable online with Microsoft's Silverlight software, although you can watch a much shorter highlights reel on YouTube -- chief executive Steve Ballmer and Windows Phone Vice President Joe Belfiore demonstrated Windows Phone 7's new features.
Its start screen, pictured at right, uses a series of interactive tiles to provide access to and display updates about your contacts and your Internet services, plus your photos and music, Xbox Live games, and Microsoft Office documents. The underlying applications, with their radically stripped-down interfaces, look nothing like the current set of Windows Mobile programs, or even software written for Apple's iPhone or Google's Android operating system.
And although those growing smartphone platforms emphasize the diversity of add-on applications, Microsoft doesn't seem anxious to make the same argument for Windows Phone 7. A promotional video played during the press conference criticized the experience of switching in and out of different apps on other phones and instead pushed the idea of "hubs"--core components of Windows Phone 7 that display content from multiple sources. For example, its contacts list, or "People hub," integrates with Facebook.
What about all the programs written for earlier versions of Windows Mobile, some of which have been revised only recently for WM 6.5's new Marketplace app store? Forget it -- there's no upgrade path spelled out. (Though if owners of Palm's Pre and Pixi phones can run "classic" Palm OS programs through a third-party emulator, the same thing could happen with Windows Phone 7.)
Windows Phone 7's interface does, however, bear a striking resemblance to the software on the Zune HD media player Microsoft shipped last year. Further, Windows 7 will play purchases from the Zune Marketplace. Belfiore left no doubt about this resemblance during the presentation: "Every Windows 7 phone will be a Zune."
Although current Windows Mobile devices feature varying hardware designs and software front ends, Microsoft is cracking down on this with Windows Phone 7 Series. Manufacturers will have to include back, home and search buttons; build in a wide, landscape-oriented touch-sensitive screen with the same resolution; and stick with Microsoft's start-screen layout.
For more details about this platform, see the hands-on writeups filed from Barcelona. For example, Engadget's Joshua Topolsky notes that copy and paste will be available but wasn't enabled on demo hardware at the show. Sascha Segan's recap for PCMag.com spells out that Microsoft is scrapping its existing sync software in favor of a version of its Windows-only Zune program. At SlashGear, Chris Davies and Vincent Nguyen observe that Microsoft won't confirm multitasking support: "Talk of no multitasking was met with stony silence (though they did confirm that you'll be able to play music in the background while doing other tasks)."
Microsoft says it will provide more details on developing software for Windows Phone 7 Series at a developers' conference next month. At the press conference, Ballmer said phones should ship "by the end of this year, holiday season 2010." Microsoft's press release lists such manufacturers as Dell, HTC, HP, LG, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson and all
five four nationwide carriers here: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless.
You have to look at the potential audience for Windows Phone 7 Series as being made of two shifting components: people who already use Windows Mobile or are thinking of doing so, and people who haven't considered Microsoft's phone platform before. Considering that the first contingent seems to be shrinking rapidly, junking its existing platform for a fresh start makes sense. But it's still a shockingly un-Microsoft thing to do, as Steve Wildstrom remarks in a blog post. (Just imagine if Windows Vista or 7's designers had been given the same freedom to redo things.)
What's your read on Windows Phone 7? Let me know in the comments -- and please spell out whether you've owned or thought of buying a Windows Mobile device before.
February 15, 2010; 2:17 PM ET
Categories: Mobile , Windows
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