NEW YORK — Microsoft on Monday unveiled details on the first phones running its brand new Windows Phone 7 operating system, the software giant’s answer to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS mobile platforms.
The phone will be available on AT&T (who co-hosted the event) and T-Mobile networks stateside beginning Nov. 8, with handsets from HTC, LG, Dell and Samsung.
“We have a beautiful lineup in this first wave of Windows Phone 7 handsets,” said Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer at Microsoft. “Microsoft and its partners are delivering a different kind of mobile phone and experience — one that makes everyday tasks faster by getting more done in fewer steps and providing timely information in a ‘glance and go’ format.”
Windows Phone 7 is a complete overhaul of Windows Mobile, which with Nokia, Blackberry and Palm had dominated smartphones before Apple and Google entered the market beginning just three years ago. Windows Mobile currently has just 5 percent of the global smartphone market, down from 9 percent only a year ago, according to Gartner Research. Worldwide, Android has already shot up to 17 percent, Apple to 14 percent, with Nokia/Symbian and RIM/BlackBerry leading with 41 and 18 percent respectively.
From the user’s point of view, the most significant innovation of Windows Phone 7 will probably be the UI design, organized around what Microsoft calls “Hubs.” Instead of a flat screen offering a grid of applications, services will be grouped in tiles according to the tasks they perform. For example, “Music” might include an onboard Zune-like media player, but also streaming services like Slacker Radio. Each hub prioritizes recent or favorite files or apps and will be able to integrate with social, sharing and streaming services in the cloud.
The primary hubs for Phone 7 will be People (with integrated contacts, phone and text messaging, and social networking), Pictures (including photos on phone, but also on Windows Live, Office (OneNote, Word and Excel Documents, SharePoint), Music/Video (Microsoft’s Zune and subscription service ZunePass, iHeartRadio, and Slacker Radio), Games (multiplayer gaming with Xbox Live).
Many of these services will be built in to the OS or pre-packaged by the hardware manufacturers, but third-party applications will be also be available for distribution through Microsoft’s app store. These applications will be able to use WP7’s built-in location and communication services.
“Thousands of applications are being developed right now,” said Microsoft developer Joe Belfiore. “Our goal is to work with our partners so their apps have elegant coexistence with what’s already on the device.” Belfiore demonstrated apps from eBay, IMDB, AT&T’s UVerse Mobile, but did not announce the number of apps available at launch or details about an app marketplace.
Microsoft is also trying a new approach to smartphone hardware. While Apple and Blackberry have designed devices tightly built around their own software, and Android has generally allowed hardware OEMs to put the OS on whatever device they wish, Microsoft has taken a hybrid approach, specifying standards for their hardware partners to meet in order to carry Windows Phone 7. These include three specific buttons – a menu/home button with a Windows logo, a back button, and search, plus other processor and screen resolution requirements.
The initial group of WP7 phones on AT&T are the HTC Surround, the LG Quantum, and the Samsung Focus. All three feature a 1-GHz processor, Wi-Fi, a 5-MP camera with 720-MP video, and each will cost $199.99 with a new contract. The HTC Surround is game- and media-focused, with a 3.5-inch screen, 16-GB storage, two Dolby Surround speakers and a kickstand to prop the device up on a flat surface. Samsung’s Focus offers the most screen real estate, with a 4-inch 800×480 Super AMOLED WVGA touchscreen, but only 8 GB of storage. The LG Quantum is optimized for text entry, with a 3.5-inch screen, 16 GB of storage and a slide-out landscape QWERTY keyboard.
Like Apple and Android (and Microsoft’s desktop software long before that), Microsoft has also designed Windows Phone 7 to complement other devices and services in the Windows ecosystem. It offers cloud syncing from the phone to the desktop through WindowsPhone.com, tight integration with Windows Live’s cloud-based office, storage, contacts/calendar, e-mail/instant messaging, file-sharing and media-management services, and gaming downloads and social networking through Xbox Live.
The most thorough integration, though, may be with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Every WP7 phone will have a search button that will connect with Bing to search web results, maps, directions, media or shopping. Bing’s search results will in turn be closely tied to the sharing and communication services on the devices. The mobile front-end client for Bing was smooth and versatile, but some may note that Microsoft did not show or announce the possibility of using another search backend as the default.
The other major worry about WP7 was the lack of copy and paste at launch, which Belfiore confirmed. However, he promised that a free update adding copy and paste would be pushed to all WP7 devices in early 2011.
The two major emphases I see in Windows Phone 7 are the integrated social networking and cloud services and the push towards casual gaming. EA’s The Sims 3 for Windows Mobile is a terrific example of the confluence of those two. Just as with the Xbox and Kinect, the development of Xbox Live for mobile has taken strong cues in look and feel from both Nintendo’s Wii and the success of iOS in casual gaming for all ages. There’s very little here that’s directed for the Xbox 360’s hard-core gamers, but there’s plenty here for people who love to play games and share media with their friends.
Microsoft’s hope is that these features will differentiate Windows Phone 7 devices from the rest of the market. Users already engaged with Microsoft devices and software, from the Windows 7 desktop OS and MS Office to the Xbox or Zune, will benefit the most from their integration on the smartphone. Others may find Phone 7’s interface and its reorganization of applications and services more intuitive or appealing.
It’s a beautiful interface, competitively priced and extremely well-integrated with Microsoft’s other core products. The irony is that two of these core products – Office and the Xbox – have been largely separate until now. Users may just have a difficult time deciding whether it’s a phone for business or pleasure – or whether Microsoft can succeed in trying to do both at the same time on one device.
Photo: Tim Carmody/ Wired.com