Windows Phone 7 Series Preview, Part 3

Finishing up my initial look of Windows Phone 7 Series is a look at the three remaining hubs, or integrated experiences, that Microsoft highlighted earlier this week in the product announcement. These hubs are in many ways the biggest differentiator between Windows Phone and all other smart phone platforms because they represent a break with the monolithic app model. Yes, you'll run apps from time to time. But with Windows Phone 7, more often than not, users will instead interact with panoramic experiences--hubs--that are made up of related applications and services. It's an exciting concept and a great example of where Windows Phone 7 is far more innovative than anything coming out of Apple or Google right now.

So without further ado, let's complete our examination of the Windows Phone 7 Series with a look at the three remaining hubs: Office, Music+Video, and Games.

Office

"It wouldn't be a Microsoft event if we didn't talk about productivity, and this phone is great for business users as well as being great for your life outside work," Belfiore said. "You know Microsoft Office is a full-feature suite of applications that doesn't just let you create and modify documents, but it's also good at things like taking notes. And that's a scenario that's great on a phone."

"Office also provides services," he continued. "SharePoint is a terrific experience. We've tried to take that experience, from the applications and documents, through note taking and the service, and bring it together on the phone." That experience, go figure, is called the Office hub. This integrated Windows Phone 7 experience provides a number of lists, including OneNote (for note taking), Documents, and SharePoint. (Outlook, which provides email and personal information management, is provided elsewhere in Windows Phone 7 Series as it was in previous Windows Mobile versions.)


I'm intrigued that OneNote is the default view here. Microsoft has told me previously that they expect OneNote to one day sit alongside Outlook as the most-often used application pair in the Office suite, and it appears that they're ready to help make that happen by giving it such a prominent position with the Office hub. The reason is simple: In addition to supporting new text and picture note creation on the phone, OneNote also support voice notes, and obviously the phone is an ideal place to create such a note since it's a device with a microphone that you carry with you at all times. (Notes are of course synchronized between the phone and the PC.)


Windows Phone 7 Office hub.

The Documents list contains all the documents you've created or synced to the phone, whereas the SharePoint list is for remote documents in a SharePoint repository or, curiously, Windows Live SkyDrive (which Belfiore said was based on SharePoint).

"We think the productivity experience--the Office hub as well as the Outlook component of the phone--is going to really make this device terrific for people who want to be productive as well as have fun," Belfiore added.

Music+Video

"Music and videos are two scenarios that people already using on phones," Belfiore said. "On my PC, I use the Zune client to manage my music collection. I acquire new music through it. But the truth is, my experience with music and video doesn't stop there. There are lots of other services I use. Pandora's a great example. I'm a fan of Pandora. I like creating new radio stations and streaming my music. On the PC, switching between these two different experiences works fine."

"But again, the phone is not a PC. So we wanted to do something that really brought those experiences together." The result is the Music+Video hub.

"First, it's worth mentioning, that every Windows Phone 7 Series phone will be a Zune," he said, answering one question that had been burning in the back of my mind since Microsoft issued the mysterious Zune 4.2 release a few weeks back. "And it will work just like Zune HD, giving you a full, rich way of synching your music and video content onto your device and consuming it. But we go beyond that because the Music+Video hub also provides a way for third party applications and services to integrate in so there's one-stop shopping for everything the user wants to do with music and video."


Windows Phone 7 Music+Video hub.

Imagine, just try to imagine, Apple ever opening up its iPod/iTunes ecosystem in such a fashion and allowing third party applications and services to not just reside on the devices but actually integrate with their applications and services in such a fashion. It's inconceivable.

The Music+Video tile is one of those rare double-wide tiles and it displays the last content you were playing by default. When you tap this tile, you're brought into the integrated experience, which features lists like Zune (which Music, Video, Podcast, Radio, and Marketplace items, like the Zune HD), History, New, and Apps. History and New will seem familiar to Zune HD users. But there's a difference here: They both work with third party apps and services in Windows Phone 7 Series as well.

Another interesting bit. While Windows Phone 7 Series is largely designed to connect directly to cloud services with no PC required, some experiences actually do get better when a PC is involved. One such experience is the Zune functionality: When you plug a Windows Phone 7 device into a PC using USB, the Zune PC software comes up instantly, allowing you to sync content as seamlessly as is now possible with the Zune HD.

Microsoft isn't admitting this yet, but Windows Phone 7 is clearly Microsoft's portable device strategy for the Zune going forward, and this explains why the Zune HD was never made available outside of the US (and never will be). And it's in keeping with Microsoft's stated strategy of making the Zune into a platform that spans the PC, the cloud, and various devices, including phones (with Windows Phone 7) and the Xbox 360.

Games

Looking at the success of the iPhone and its integrated Apps Store, it's hard to overlook the fact that the vast majority of downloaded apps are games. They're a ubiquitous presence on the most popular smart phone platform today, and Microsoft intends to support this market on its own smart phone platform as well.

Of course, Microsoft has one huge advantage over Apple when it comes to games. That is, Microsoft is actually a games powerhouse, thanks to its Xbox platform, Xbox 360 console, and Xbox Live video game service. (Microsoft is also a major presence in the PC gaming market and in casual, web-based gaming.)

So the Games hub "features" Xbox Live. "Yes, we're bringing the Xbox Live service and Xbox Live games to the Windows Phone as a built-in part of the value proposition," Belfiore declared.


Windows Phone 7 Games hub.

But what does this mean? When you click the Games tile on the phone's start screen, you're presented with the Games hub, which consists of Spotlight, Xbox Live, Requests, and Collection lists. Spotlight is essentially an RSS feed list feature announcements about new games that are available on the service. Pan over to the right to the Xbox Live area, and you'll see your Xbox Live avatard with the most recent achievement you've earned (either on the console or on the phone, or, unspoken, on any Live-compatible PC game as well).

Requests provides a list of gaming requests you've received from others. This is something that happens quite a bit on Xbox Live, so it's not hard to imagine this being a big deal on the phone as well, assuming there is some mass market of Windows Phone 7-compatible games. On the far right is the Collection list, which features "premium titles, authored to Xbox Live," which on the phone will support achievements, Gamerscore advancement, and multiplayer interaction "with people on other phones, and also on the PC, and on the console as well."

People have mistaken this statement to mean that the phone will somehow play Xbox games. That's not what Belfiore said, and I don't actually believe we're going to see lame cross-platform games that work across all three platforms either. Instead, I think what this means is that you can play multiplayer games between phones, but that you'll see achievements and Gamerscore changes that might have occurred via non-phone games. Which is, by the way, exactly how this system works already.

Put another way, Windows Phone games will be able to utilize the Xbox Live infrastructure in the same way that Xbox 360 games and Games for Windows LIVE games to today. It's just another kind of game running over the network. It's really not as groundbreaking or incredible as some have claimed, to be honest, but it's an obvious addition and one that will further differentiate this platform from the competition.

Wrapping up the software bits

Wrapping up his introduction to Windows Phone 7 Series software, Belfiore hit on the high points of Microsoft's plan for this new platform. "We're trying to take this rich capability of stuff out on the web, and applications, and bring them together that's smart, that prioritizes around the things that are important to each individual user," he said. "So the phone becomes a unique and intimate reflection of who they are. We wanted to create integrated experiences around the most common tasks: Music, video, pictures, productivity, people. And we think that this all together is really a different kind of phone that will work great for busy people whose lives are constantly in motion. We want it to be easy to use and delightful and something new."

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer added some parting shots of his own. He said that the company had three guiding principles when it came to creating the new platform.

Accountability for user experience. Windows Phone 7 Series isn't just about starting over from scratch where the previous platform, Windows Mobile, was simply the sum of all the updates that had piled up over time. The company will require that companies that build Windows Phones adhere to certain requirements, including the capacitive screen and three hardware buttons. Microsoft sees the user experience that it's demonstrated as a "baseline" on which its hardware partners can build. Left unsaid was whether partners (like HTC) could replace the entire UI as they do now with Windows Mobile 6.x. My guess is that they cannot.

New platform with deep integrated services. Though they were not described in any detail at the announcement, Ballmer mentioned that the new platform would be accompanied by a rich new development environment. (This will be unveiled at MIX'10, which I will be attending next month in Las Vegas.) He spoke of developers utilizing the foundation Microsoft had created to make their own experiences. Again, more on this soon.

A strong ecosystem. I was particularly interested in this bit since the biggest problem with Windows Mobile in the past was Microsoft's inability to prevent its partners from screwing up the works with terrible devices, slow-to-market or nonexistent updates, and inconsistent software front-ends. Ballmer said that Microsoft was changing its approach to partners. For the hardware, Microsoft wants to "raise the bar" and have more consistency than in the past, in both the hardware and the user experience. He left open the door for "innovation," which could be worded as "tomfoolery," since there will be as many mistakes as advances, but I get the idea that Microsoft will have a firmer thumb on things than in the past.

Hardware and wireless partners

Andy Lees, the senior vice president of Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business, introduced the hardware partners that the software giant is working with to bring Windows Phone 7 Series to market. These include Qualcomm, with whom Microsoft created the "core silicon," as well as a set of OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers, which helped Microsoft create the "core hardware specification that is common to all Windows phones." These OEMs include LG, Samsung, Garmin, ASUS, HTC, HP, Dell, Sony Ericsson, and Toshiba. So all devices will have four-point multitouch, accelerometers, compasses, and other internal hardware components.

Lees also touched on the touchy topic of how OEMs can customize the OS. Microsoft will supply the user interface, Lees said, but OEMs are free to customize the devices in ways that are "synergistical." Each OEM will be supplying a "range" of devices, Lees said, but noted that we'd have to wait until a date closer to launch--which I'm now hearing is September 2010, and not later in the year as implied--to see those designs.

Finally, Lees introduced the wireless operators that Microsoft is partnering with. These companies are the ones that actually interact with customers and provide the wireless networks that the devices utilize. Like the hardware partners, Microsoft's wireless operator partners will also add their own software and services to Windows Phones. The companies that have committed to delivering Windows Phones to customers at launch include T-Mobile, Telefonica, Sprint, Vodafone, AT&T, Orange, SFR, Verizon Wireless, and Telstra. Curiously, two wireless carriers, AT&T and Orange, were singled out as premier partners, though it's unclear what exactly that relationship entails.

That's all, folks

So there you have it. Microsoft, in one fell swoop, has gone from industry punching bag to having the most innovative and interesting mobile platform. Microsoft, with a single news announcement, has turned the mobile industry on its head and not offered a me-too apps platform but has rather offered up a new view, that the phone isn't a PC and shouldn't work like one. Microsoft, long regarded as slow-moving and inept, has proven that it can enter a market quickly with a game-changing device that makes the current market leader look sad by comparison.

This is an astonishing turn of events. It is, in many ways, as monumental as the original iPhone, and certainly even more impressive than Windows 7. (Which, while excellent, still benefitted from some important and solid foundational work courtesy of Windows Vista.) Windows Phone 7 builds on user experience work from Media Center and Zune, sure, but is in effect a brand new platform. Incredible.

All the people who mocked Microsoft's mobile efforts will now have to find a new target. And all the people who were convinced that the company's only chance was to purchase another contender, like Palm, will need to rethink their narrow worldviews. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft appears to have done the impossible. It has created a platform that easily exceeds anyone's expectations. That it comes in the wake of Apple's lackluster and me-too iPad product announcement makes this all the more delicious. The tables have turned.

This is going to be a great year.