Microsoft this week announced the release of a near-final Technical Preview build of its upcoming Windows Phone 7 platform, seeding developers and reviewers with early prototype devices. I'm currently working on a book, Windows Phone Secrets, that will document Microsoft's new mobile system, and as such I've been using a prototype Windows Phone device this month as my sole mobile phone. Here's what I've discovered.
Windows Phone closely mirrors industry trends in which our personal lives are leaking ever more into our professional lives. While I've cautioned against the consumerization of IT recently in So Easy Even a Child Can Do It, we all understand that there's a certain inevitability to this change. We're working longer hours, working from home, and keeping tabs on the office on an almost constant basis. And the way we do this, increasingly, is via a new generation of powerful smart phones.
To date, Windows Phone offers the most compelling interchange of personal and professional needs available anywhere, and it speaks to a future where fewer of us will carry multiple devices for multiple purposes. The Windows Phone People hub seamlessly integrates contacts from, say, your employer's Exchange Server and the Facebook social networking service, which is an almost surreal experience. And the Calendar application lets you mix and match corporate calendars (Exchange, Outlook) with personal calendars (Google, Windows Live). These types of combinations run throughout the device, blurring the line between work and play.
What's most interesting to me about this system is how its Metro user interface takes a back seat to content. It's easy to use terms like "content first" and "the stuff that really matters to you," but seeing it in practice is somewhat eye-opening. In content-rich experiences like the Pictures and Music + Videos hubs, you're presented with sweeping panoramas full of rich, graphical interfaces, gorgeous background art, and parallax scrolling effects. Windows Phone is a multimedia sensation, and it effortlessly draws data from multiple sources, presenting it all as a cohesive whole in a single, panoramic experience.
The tale of two UIs, part 1: A gorgeous panoramic experience.
Dive into something more prosaic and Metro responds in kind. The email interface is all about reading, featuring elegant black text on a white background, stark and unadorned of any graphical frills. But in use, it is efficient and fast, and it triages email as swiftly as my previous smart phone favorite, the iPhone.
The tale of two UIs, part 2: A stark but efficient, work-oriented email app.
Likewise, Calendar, curiously outfitted in an opposite-world UI of white (and colored) text on a black background, is also stark looking at first, especially if you've just navigated out of one of the more colorful, interactive, media experiences. But here, too, you find a simple elegance and efficiency, one that you grow to appreciate. The work stuff isn't about presentation. It's about getting results and getting out.
In fact, you can almost always neatly divide the different built-in Windows Phone capabilities along these personal and professional lines, which suggests a master plan. Music + Videos is rich and interactive, as you'd hope. But the Office hub--which offers seamless SharePoint 2010 connectivity, by the way, via a mobile SharePoint Workspace application--is all business, even though it too is presented as a panoramic experience. (This might actually be one of Windows Phone's few miscues. You can't launch Office Mobile apps, like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, or SharePoint Workspace, individually. Instead, you have to access them through the Office hub.)
Will enterprises embrace a phone that has an Xbox Live avatar on the Start screen, playfully goofing around inside a Games live tile? Sure they will. They've already embraced the iPhone in record numbers, which had a telling effect on Microsoft's approach to Windows Phone. In fact, this new system more closely resembles the iPhone from a management perspective than it does Windows Mobile. (That will change over time, I'm told.) But I'd argue that Windows Phone is already a better solution than iPhone for businesses, not because of its Microsoft roots, but rather because of the interactive experiences. This phone blends work and play together in ways that your employees will find enticing.
There are questions about advanced Exchange and VPN support, to what level enterprises can manage the phones--for example, whether they can turn off certain hubs and applications if desired--and very real concerns about missing features at launch. Windows Phone is a brand new platform, after all, and it isn't perfect. I feel an almost legal requirement to mention that two basic features, copy and paste and true multitasking of third party apps, will not be present on day one, for example.
But I also feel that none of these concerns will matter. The real innovations in Windows Phone are seen in its interface, and its ability to connect so seamlessly with third party services and present the results not in siloed, iPhone-style app prisons, but inside of cohesive, panoramic experiences. The effect is breathtaking, and it's groundbreaking, and it's and something you have to see to fully appreciate.
I think of Windows Phone as the smart phone equivalent of giving employees laptops so they can catch up on email at home. You know they're going to play the occasional game of Farmville, and monitor their eBay bids. But they're also going to get work done when they're not in the office and develop work habits that make them more valuable to the company. We can debate the merits of this always-at-work society we now live in, but let's at least accept that it's a reality.
Any smart phone will let you check your email. But the Windows Phone advantage is that these work-related experiences are superior, and sit side-by-side with truly compelling media and social experiences that users will simply love. In other words, it's a win-win.
Ultimately, the ability of Windows Phone to engage at an emotional level will win over converts. That's not the way we've historically judged business-oriented solutions for end users. But maybe it's time we did so.