As I write this, I'm at the MIX'10 conference in Las Vegas, where Microsoft is telling the world its developer stories for Windows Phone 7 and Internet Explorer 9. I'll be covering these developments all week. But last week, in a small meeting room on Microsoft's ever-expanding Redmond campus, I had a much more exciting opportunity. I finally got some hands-on time with Windows Phone 7.
And exciting is absolutely the word for it. Looking back over the past 15+ years of covering the tech industry professionally, I can recall a few moments of actual excitement, but even fewer where the initial buzz didn't die down as quickly as it came. But Windows Phone is a game changer, and that's something that we can't say all that often about Microsoft products. That it comes so soon after the iPhone--itself a game changer of historic proportions--and even competes in the same market is, perhaps, most astonishing of all.
There's a lot of marketing hoo-hah around Windows Phone. Spend any time investigating this platform and you'll hear terms like "delightful" and "smart design" repeated again and again. But Microsoft isn't just shaking it for all its worth for marketing's sake, however. Their previous mobile platform, Windows Mobile, is a dud after a decade of overt neglect. And, as exemplified by the iPhone, the smart phone market has suddenly heated up. This is a market that will quickly outpace the PC market in terms of both volume and annual revenues.
Microsoft could have taken the easy way out with Windows Phone. In fact, they were previously working on Project Photon, which would have become Windows Mobile 7 and done just that. But instead, they did something that the software giant so rarely does: The right thing. Which in this case means starting over and righting the wrongs of the past.
A list describing those wrongs would be long enough to fill a book. I don't have that much space, so let me deliver some highlights. Let's start with the most obvious element of this system, that thing that you'll look at and, in the case of Windows Phone, touch. This is the user experience, which for other smart phones in the wake of the iPhone has fallen into a familiar (if old fashioned) single-tasking application-centric approach, marked by screens of icons in a grid, each of which provides access to a single function. Facebook. Email. Whatever.
On Windows Phone, there are applications. Of course there are. But Microsoft has stepped back and reengineered the system to accommodate the user--i.e. it is very much user focused--instead of the applications. That means an intelligent and dynamic Start screen that--God help me--is actually delightful. And useful, which is perhaps more important. It means that if you want to view photos shared on Flickr, or Windows Live, or Facebook, you just navigate to a beautiful Pictures hub, a panoramic experience that aggregates content from multiple services and applications. You don't have to dive in and out of individual applications to view this material separately and disjointedly. Smart.
From a hardware standpoint, Windows Mobile was/is a mess. There are likely no examples of any human being walking into a wireless store and declaring their desire to buy a Windows Mobile phone. Instead, some people end up with Windows Mobile phones because those devices meet some need. More often than not, some third party--the wireless carrier or phone maker--has obliterated the Windows Mobile UI and replaced it with a front-end of their own. (And if there is any sadder commentary on the state of Windows Mobile right now, I can't think of it.) Windows Phones will be consistent. There will be two screen sizes (800x480, which is all we're seeing right now) and, later, smaller 480x320 screens. The UI cannot be replaced by a third party. Instead, wireless carriers and phone makers can add their own hubs and applications and not muddy the work Microsoft has done. The list of required hardware is long, rigid, and wonderful: A capacitive touch screen with four or more contact points. A full complement of sensors, including A-GPS, accelerometer, compass, light, and proximity. A high quality camera--5 megapixels or more--with a flash and a dedicated camera button. 256 MB RAM or more and 8 GB Flash memory or more. A DirectX 9-capable GPU. An ARMv7 Cortex/Scorpion or better processor. Three hardware buttons on the front of the device in the exact same locations (Start, Search, and Back).
A hardware keyboard, it turns out, is optional. That's because there will be multiple device form factors, giving users choice where it matters most. So when someone goes into a store and declares their desire for a Windows Phone experience (which they most certainly will), they're going to get it. And on a range of devices.
Another long-time annoyance with Windows Mobile is the software updating process. For reasons that have long benefitted its mobile industry partners and harmed users, Microsoft has never allowed Windows Mobile users to update their system to new software versions. (Very, very few device makers and wireless partners ever provided any upgrade paths of their own.) The reason for this is simple: Wireless companies make more money when you buy a new phone--and thus reset your contract out another two years--than they do by providing users with free updates. So that's been the model.
Not anymore. As Apple does with the iPhone, Microsoft will "own" everything about the Windows Phone user experience. This includes the user interface, of course, but also some other things--like device drivers and the phone dialer--that the company previously farmed out to device makers and mobile operators. And, thank the heavens, this also includes the updating process. So with Windows Phone 7, Microsoft can and will deliver critical and other software updates via a Windows Update mechanism, up to and including updating any and all of the software that's preinstalled on the device. Bravo.
For developers, the picture is rosy too. Windows Phone supports two primary development interfaces. There's XNA for games and Silverlight--essentially a WPF-like presentation framework on top of .NET--for more traditional applications. We're talking Visual Studio for coding, Expression Blend for UI design, and programming models that developers already understand. Best of all, those wanting to get into Windows Phone development can do so for nothing--the tools are literally all free--and then get their apps hosted in a new Windows Marketplace environment that will surprise people. (It's available both on the phone and on the PC, in the latter case via Zune software.)
And before any of this scares off you enterprise/business customers, relax. Microsoft hasn't forgotten how it got here, and Windows Phone will offer the most compelling smart phone feature set its ever delivered for businesses. It will have new versions of the Office Mobile apps. Direct integration with SharePoint. Support for multiple Exchange ActiveSync accounts, providing seamless integration of business and home email, contacts, and calendars if you want it. And this summer--I'm thinking around the time of TechEd 2010 in June--Microsoft will announce that businesses can deploy internal Windows Phone applications privately using an as-yet unnamed "common distribution system." (I'm guessing this means WSUS or System Center Configuration Manager.)
There have been weird complaints this week, and you can almost feel the anti-Microsoft brigade chipping away at the patina of perfection that Microsoft has tried to erect around its new baby. The multitasking is limited. Users will only be able to get apps from the Marketplace, and not from third parties. Gasp! Is it true that there's no copy and paste?
No matter. Windows Phone combines those very few things that were right about Windows Mobile--primarily some business functionality--with a much wider set of new functionality that is exciting in both scope and possibility. And that's the thing about Windows Phone 7. I can't shake the feeling of excitement, and while I keep waiting for some unfortunate bit of reality to come crashing down and ruin this vibe, it's lasted far longer than seems reasonable. It's been a long time, it really has.
I love Windows Phone.
An edited version of this editorial appeared in the March 16, 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul