Windows Phone 7 Series Preview, Part 2

It's funny how the passage of time can temper one's reaction to things. The iPad, so initially exciting to many, is now regarded as yet another me-too product by most, as it should be. (Conversely, I've warmed a bit to the device, but only because I've wanted a big screen iPod for a long time now.) With Windows Phone 7, the simpler, better-looking successor to Windows Mobile, I'm getting more and more excited as time goes by. The deeper I dive into this system, the more I learn, the better it gets.

Before moving on with an overview of the Windows Phone 7 Series unveiling, I'd like to highlight some of the terminology around this system, which I find quite interesting. Windows Phone 7 utilizes a start screen built from tiles, all of which are dynamic and customizable. Tiles can be used as-is, as "glanceable" heads-up displays to the information you care about, or you can jump into specific topic areas, task-specific destinations, called hubs, by clicking on one. Some hubs include People, Music+Video, and Pictures. You can also promote ("pin") apps and other things to your start screen. This means that a tile for that app will appear there, and you can of course move it around, positioning it wherever you like. The list of things you can promote is pretty vast. For example, Belfiore pointed out that you can even promote a playlist. And apps? They're not really called apps. They're called experiences.

Got it? Good, let's head in again.

Built-in experiences

Belfiore highlighted some of the experiences (roughly speaking, "applications") that are built-into Windows Phone 7. Calendar, historically one of Windows Mobile's few strong points, features multiple views as you'd expect, with things like Day view and Agenda view, but presented in a nice Zune-like fashion with bold colors and clean fonts. Calendar is a nice example of where Microsoft neatly blends your home life and your work life but letting you include items from both calendars together in a color coordinated fashion. Sure, it's been done before with calendars. But in Windows Phone 7, this meshing of your different lives is more pervasive, from the start screen down to the individual applications.


And like other calendar applications (on say the iPhone), the Windows Phone 7 calendar app (and other experiences in the OS) detects addresses and phone numbers in meeting entries and translates them into clickable links that you can tap. If you tap an address, Bing Maps loads. Tap a phone number and the phone dialer launches. It all works as expected.

Many applications feature a software-based toolbar called the app bar that sits on the bottom of the screen. It presents the current application's most common commands in a single consistent place and if you're familiar with the Zune HD-style round buttons, you'll know what to expect here. Also familiar to Zune HD users will be the way the app bar slides up to reveal all of the possible application commands. "It's a way to keep the user centered so they always know where to go to find functionality," Belfiore explained. "The most common things are right there on top. It's a nice way of organizing things." It looks simple and elegant, and consistent.

The Bing search experience looks and works much like the iPhone app at first, and it utilizes the phone's built-in GPS hardware to make intelligent results available when you search. So if you're looking for sushi, Bing will return local results first, with a map. But as a Windows Phone 7 application--excuse me, experience--Bing uses the excellent crossbar-style UI, so you can of course choose other search types easily, including news, web, and the like. This UI, put to such great use in the Zune PC software and Zune HD, works just as well on a phone. No surprise there. But it's nice to see it used so consistently in this new system. It's a paradigm that's been around for a while and honed over time, and it deserves the attention it will now get.

As you dive into search results, Bing provides some interesting additional information. Reviews for local places, like restaurants, will yield the expected address and phone links, but also reviews, other nearby locations, and the like.

The Bing Maps experience offers satellite imagery as you zoom in but simpler, standard-style overhead maps when you're further out. This, Belfiore said, is an attempt to predict what the user would want and act accordingly. It supports multi-touch gestures, too, so you can zoom in and out as you do on an iPhone. The Bings Map app bar features all the commands you'd expect around directions and so forth, and if you scroll it up to expand the more advanced commands, you'll see options for Aerial view and the like.

Like Windows Mobile 6.5.x, Windows Phone 7 comes with a version of the Internet Explorer browser. Based on Belfiore's demo, it's hard to say what's changed compared to the current version. It features a similar UI, but Belfiore said it was "much more advanced" than any mobile browser they had previously built and was based on the code for the desktop version of IE. (Which version? That was unclear.) "It's compatible with tons and tons of sites," Belfiore claimed, but didn't mention that it won't come with support for Adobe Flash. That said, Microsoft won't prevent Adobe from making Flash for Windows Phone 7, in sharp contrast to Apple's protective stance with the iPhone.

Performance of IE on Windows Phone 7 looked great in Belfiore's demo, though it's unclear whether the device used is representative of what we'll see in the real world later this year. One intriguing bit: He talked up the rendering quality of text as he zoomed in so far that simple article text appeared like huge headline banner text. "I want you to take a look at how these letters look," he said. "We've paid attention to great visualizations here," Belfiore said, zooming in ever further. "The curves are very smooth, the positioning of letters within words is very exact. This is a step beyond ClearType called sub-text positioning." [ClearType was essentially an implementation of sub-pixel rendering; I suppose the distinction here is that ClearType only took what you had an represented it exactly whereas this new technology actually better positions text as it renders.] "What it does is make web pages really, really legible."

The combination of sub-text positioning and high-res WVGA screens, which Belfiore implied would be a standard on all Windows Phone 7 devices, makes web pages look better than ever on such small devices. "It makes reading web pages a pleasure on these phones," he said.

Like other Windows Phone 6 apps/experiences, IE features a standard app bar and if you're familiar with IE on Windows Mobile 6.5.x, you've seen its predecessor, which appears to be very similar. If features the usual browser navigation controls and "add to Favorites" functionality, but also tab support and the ability to pin individual web pages to the device's start screen as a tile. Not hugely different from, say, the iPhone, but finally available on Windows in a way that makes sense.

Highlighting the communications features of the phone, Belfiore navigated into the unfortunately named Outlook tile (seriously, can't this just be called email? Let's not rename things to match desktop products, it doesn't make sense). "Outlook is the email experience on the phone, and is connected to my Exchange Server at work," Belfiore said. "Thematically, we've tried to build this phone experience so it works great both for your work life and for your home life outside of work."

Again we see the crossbar UI, allowing you to pivot left to right through rich lists representing unread mail, flagged mail, urgent mail, all mail, and so on. "It works just like Outlook mail on the desktop," he said, though of course it looks nothing like it. In fact, it looks much nicer. "It operates against the local cache of data so its very fast, and if you lose network connectivity, it's fully featured."

"Again, we've tried to really pay attention to the details," he continued. "One place we actually modified our email design is in the way people triage and delete mail items." Now, I have to admit my heart sort of skipped a beat here. This is the exact language I've used to describe why an iPhone is so good at this task I call "email triage" (and to my knowledge, this is not the common way to describe it) and why current Windows Mobile versions are so bad. Am I saying they did this just for me? No. But I am saying that they appear to have fixed something that was very obviously broken before and working properly on a competitor's solution. And sure enough, triaging (and deleting mail), a task for which a mobile device should be super-efficient, works wonderfully in Windows Phone 7. Seriously, Microsoft. Thank you.

Hubs: Integrated experiences

With this, Belfiore concluded his look at the state of the software as it was at the time of the demo. But he said that Windows Phone 7 was more than just the application experiences on the phone. It was a way to bring together applications, web services, and data as integrated experiences, or destinations.

"There's a destination for pictures, a destination for people," Belfiore said. "These integrated experiences are called hubs. The idea of a hub is to organize data on the web, and data in an application, and data on your phone, into a single place that you can visit and have real efficient, fast, fun views. When you bring those things together, the combination, the whole, is greater than the sum of its parts individually. And the experience will be meaningful, delightful, and work the way that a phone should in the small moments of your life where you only have a little bit of time with it."

Belfiore walked the audience through five of the hubs in Windows Phone 7. As he did, I'll describe features common to hubs in the description of the first hub, since that's the logical progression.

People

"The phone is primarily about communication, and about connecting with people," Belfiore said. "And the way that we connect with people has evolved over the past few years. On the PC, there are lots of ways that I manage lists of people. I have Outlook, where I have a whole bunch of contacts that are work related and stored on a server. I'm a member of Facebook, I've got 650 Facebook friends that I interact with. I use web mail services like Gmail, or Yahoo, or Hotmail, Windows Live Mail, and I have contacts there. On the PC, it's OK for me to switch between these things. But the phone is just not a PC. And we thought we could do better than making people deal with all these things individually."

To this end, the People hub brings together the most common tasks related to the people you care most about. Like all Windows Phone UIs, it's arranged as a pivotable cross bar, with lists of items you move between. The leftmost list, presented in square photographic tiles, concerns your most recently accessed contacts. Next is the all contact list, aggregated from whatever services and sources you've configured: Windows Live, Facebook, Exchange, and online web mail. And then there's a What's New list (or feed), similar to the What's New feed that Microsoft previously added to Windows Live.

Belfiore described the UI, which works across all Windows Phone hubs and is very similar to how the Zune HD works today, as a panorama. The phone's screen acts like a portal view into this panorama, where you can only see one part, or list, at a time. Flick left or right and you'll navigate instantly to the next (or previous) portion of the panorama, or the next list, instantly. So when you access the People tile on the phone's home screen, you'll navigate into the People hub and see just the Recent list at first. Pan to the right and you'll see the All list. Pan to the right again and you'll see the What's New feed.


Windows Phone 7 People hub.

Microsoft segments long lists of items with letter headings. You can tap one of these letters to fill the screen with a grid of letters, and then tap one of those letters to move instantly anywhere in the list. This makes navigating long lists much easier and, more important, much quicker.

When you tap into an individual item, in this case a contact (or "person"), you can view information about that item but also pan right or left to see more. So in the case of people, panning right will show you the What's New list for the currently viewed contact only. And you can comment on Windows Live, Facebook, and other social network posts and so on. Genius.

"So now I'm communicating," Belfiore noted, and he pinned an individual contact to the start screen of his phone, creating a new top-level tile because that person is important to him. "And as that person updates Facebook or Windows Live, I have that information available to me in a glanceable way," he said. "And that's the idea. Bring together discrete sources of data from web services, applications, into one place in a way that simple, functional and glanceable."

Pictures

The notion of a Pictures hub is semi-obvious but, again, the way that Microsoft has organized things here is unique. "The way I use pictures on the PC is very rich and full-featured," Belfiore said. "I use Windows Live Photo Gallery to manage all the pictures I store on my PCs, and I have thousands of them. I post a lot of them to Facebook and to other web services to share with my friends. Again, on the PC, using these different applications works OK. But a phone is just not a PC. The things I want to do are a little different."

The Picture hub is organized into a number of lists as well, and this includes individual lists, or galleries, of pictures on the phone, What's New (for friends' pictures), All, and Favorites. (Side note: I currently maintain a folder structure called Favorites, which I store favorite photos that I sync between all PCs using Live Mesh and to all portable devices using iTunes--for iPods and iPhone--and Zune. So this latter functionality appears to be a formalization of an organizational structure I am currently employing manually.)


Windows Phone 7 Pictures hub.

By the way, the Pictures tile is one of the rare "double width" start screen tiles; that is, it's the size of two normal tiles and is thus rectangular instead of square. It's unclear at this time whether such a thing is customizable, or whether items you pin to the start screen can be elevated in this fashion.

In the initial Pictures hub list, called Gallery, you can view all of the pictures that are available on the phone. Pan to the right, and you get the latest folder of photos that have been synced to the device or taken with the phone's camera. Pan to the right again, and the What's New list appears. "Again, a feed that shows you all of the activity of your friends, as it relates to photos," Belfiore said.

Viewing individual galleries works as expected with panning and gestures, and you can "choose" an individual picture to bring up a list of options, like Delete, Upload to Facebook, Share to..., Save as Favorite, and Create. "This is a way to integrate functionality from other applications or services," Belfiore said. "

As an integrated service, the Pictures hub neatly mixes local content (photos synced to the phone or taken with the phone's camera) with photos that are stored online, via Windows Live, Facebook, or other services. Belfiore showed a gallery view where folders are represented as photo thumbnails (as with the Zune) and were a mix of local and online content, displayed side by side. "All these pictures, whether I took them with the phone camera, whether I synced them from my PC, or whether I posted them to one of these web services, all these pictures are available for you to look at, view, consume, comment on, right on your phone, in a simple, straightforward, and consistent way, without having to do any extra work."

But wait, there's more

Well, I'm out of time again, so I'll see you soon in Part 3 of my Windows Phone 7 Preview, which continues along with the Belfiore announcement, revealing three more hubs and other information about Microsoft's fascinating new mobile system. Again, I'm struck by how much better this gets as you learn more about it. It's been a while since I've been able to say that about a Microsoft product, and it's refreshing and exciting to see something so innovative and fresh come out of Redmond. Suddenly, the future looks bright.