Two weeks ago, I've suspended my Tuscany vacation because I had the chance to meet Greg Sullivan, Redmond-based Microsoft Senior Product Manager for Windows Phone 7, for a discussion about the current state of Windows Phone 7 and the upcoming launch. As you can imagine, Greg was unable to confirm any release dates but we had a quite open and honest discussion about the Windows Phone 7 platform, the market outlook and the competitive environment. Unfortunately, the meeting location wasn't good enough to do some high-quality video recordings of Windows Phone 7 itself (see video bellow) but there a plenty of videos online anyway and even more important was the discussion we had!
First time I've (officially) seen Windows Phone 7 was back in February at the Mobile World Congress, when Microsoft announced the upcoming launch of its new smartphone platform and in Barcelona I had the first time the chance to see it in action. While the "Barcelona-release" was far away from anything launch-ready, the latest technical preview is quite close to what we can expect for the launch. It was super fast and fluid and nearly code complete. Now Microsoft's highest priority task is to stabilize the platform and the performance. However, some things has still to be done. For instance is the Xbox integration is yet not complete (in the Xbox hub you still see the one or the other placeholder) and Microsoft is also not satisfied with the one or the other user interface behaviors. For instance, under certain circumstances, Windows Phone 7 allows to press and hold the touchscreen to get a contextual menu for further actions. Here it's neither obvious for a power user nor for a consumer when the contextual menu is available or not and Microsoft is still thinking about ways to improve it.
Beside this, the overall graphical user interface is done and Microsoft has a clear vision what Windows Phone 7 has to be or even not. Unlike with Windows Mobile and Windows Phone before, this time Microsoft has also its end-users in its mind, when Microsoft talks about its customers, without giving up its close relationships to its carrier and ODM partners but the bottom-line is: End-user first. This means that the end-user has the ability to customize how his/her Windows Phone has to look and work. While Microsoft has defined the overall look and feel and carriers and ODMs can add tiles to the homescreen, the end-user is free to rearrange or, even more important, remove the tiles. This won't uninstall the application behind the tile but an end-user can get rid of the first-sight appearance. Also customers are free to change the color-scheme (without installing any themes or anything similar) but it's just supported by the OS settings. So if a user doesn't want the weather tile of the manufacturer and want to change the carrier's color scheme from - let's say - magenta to a blue, it's possible to remove the weather tile as well as changing the color scheme, from the device's settings menu. Another important improvement to today's Windows Mobile/Windows Phone Professional devices is the language selection! While Windows Phone Standard (Microsoft's non-touchscreen smartphones) always supported the change of the OS language, Windows Phone Professional (Microsoft's touchscreen smartphones) were always locked to one language only. Now it's possible to change the language straight through the device settings. This is an important benefit, especially here in Europe where you might want to buy a device from abroad but changing the device language to your mother language without (illegally) flashing the device with a new firmware. Frankly, this was way overdue but better late than never.
Talking about localization! In the beginning, U.S. users might get more/most out of their Windows Phone 7 than European or Asian users. Windows Phone 7 comes with Bing search and Bing maps and neither carriers nor ODMs or customers can change this to anything non-Bing. While Google is dominating the web search (and most likely the web mapping), Bing isn't bad at all, neither the search nor the mapping service and unlike on Windows Mobile, where Bing was just an add-on application, Bing is deeply integrated and part of the whole Windows Phone 7 experience. So if a user is doing a search, it will search in Bing, if the location should be shown on a map, it will be shown in Bing. So far so good. However, if you do a search for "Pizza" around you, you might get the same or similar results as in Google, and it shows you the restaurants around you in Bing maps. However, in the beginning European users won't have access to reviews of the certain restaurant but this feature will initially available in the U.S. only. It was confirmed that Microsoft will later enhance the search results for other areas of the world as well but for the launch, this is U.S. only. This doesn't comes to any surprise at all. While the U.S. Windows Mobile Bing application was always feature-rich(er than the rest of the world application), the non-U.S. version was always kind of basic and this continues (initially) with Windows Phone 7.
However, the good and maybe even more important news is, that right in time for the Windows Phone 7 launch, Zune - Microsoft's music and video service - will also open in foreign countries, other than just the U.S. And it makes sense because Windows Phone 7 is the kind of "Zune phone" we all speculated about for years. Sure, Zune is just a service Windows Phone 7 will use but it's an important service to get the full user experience. Thanks to Microsoft, I was lucky enough to got a Zune HD for testing last year which also included a Zune trial pass and I was deeply impressed how good Zune is. Sure, since it was U.S.-centric, it lacked many non-U.S./UK artists but I'm confident Europeans as well as Asians will get a way broader range of artists, as soon as Zune opens abroad from the U.S.
Talking about integration! Windows Phone 7 is a highly integrated systems like maybe no other mobile OS today. Greg explained it that it's not just jumping in and out of an application but all applications work together, to benefit from each other and for the benefit of the user who shouldn't think about what he want to do next but just doing it. For instance a snapped photo always looks into the camera viewfinder and therefore a user can easily check if the previous shot was good or bad, by just sliding in the photo into the viewfinder. Without leaving the camera application, opening the gallery, verifying the photo, leaving the gallery and opening the camera application again. It's this kind of small interaction between applications which Microsoft concentrated when it designed Windows Phone 7.
Sure, an interaction between applications, especially contact data and streams isn't anything new at all - HTC has something similar with HTC Sense, Sony Ericsson calls it Timescape and Mediascape and Motorola calls it MOTOBLUR. But all the mentioned systems above are add-ons on top of the OS. Microsoft has made it a vital and important part of the whole OS. For instance will Facebook photo albums of friends are becoming part of the device's photo album. Facebook status messages are becoming part of the contact's address book and so on. Microsoft deeply links internal and external information into one which - on one hand - makes it convenient but - on the other hand - risks an information overflow. It wouldn't make me wonder if Windows Phone 7 users will start to clean-up their Facebook relationships to make it leaner and more useable on Windows Phone 7 smartphones.
All together, I was deeply impressed after my quality-time with Greg's Windows Phone 7 demo device and I have to admit that Microsoft might have a winner in the pipeline. I was asked why I think it rocks and compared to what? And I think that's the smartest part of Windows Phone 7 - it's not comparable to anything we have in the market today. It's neither a iOS nor a Android copy-cat but Windows Phone 7 just stand for itself, which is - in my humble opinion the only and right way to invent something. It's new, it's fresh and it's just different but at the same time Windows Phone 7 will get many fans, I'm quite sure it will also have many haters. Windows Phone 7 isn't just Windows Mobile 7, it's something totally different; from a long time Windows Mobile and Windows Phone user perspective it should be better called Windows Phone 2010 because that's the year a new calculation of times starts for Windows Phone again. Windows Mobile and Windows Phone users have to forget everything they knew and loved about the previous mobile device OS. I would say the change is nearly as radical as the change from Windows 3.11 to Windows XP or from DOS to Windows 3.11. Yes, it's still Microsoft but not the product you used to know before!
Old-time Pocket PC/Windows Mobile/Windows Phone users might dislike that Windows Phone 7 is taking some of the features we had come to love (multitasking, smart-dialing, etc.) but these are features Microsoft might add later - with an update - again. These kind of features are not totally lost. However, other features are - for instance the loss of a file system which is accessible through USB or the lack of a memory card support. I, for myself, am not exactly sure if I like it or not and if I can live without it - only time will tell - but it's fact. On the other hand, if Microsoft is addressing a different market with Windows Phone 7 than it ever did with Windows Mobile/Windows Phone before, it's questionable if this market audience will miss these features; especially if it never came in contact with it or used it so far.
At the end of the day it came to the question if the meeting and the quality time with Windows Phone 7 was worth the time and lost vacation day and except that I hadn't had the chance to record a better video it was definitely worth the time and travel-expenses! Windows Phone 7 definitely makes fun and is to use like no other smartphone today. Nevertheless, Windows Phone 7 has to prove this first experience at the daily use, after it's released later this year. However, I have to admit that I really had a hard time to return the device to Greg, after our meeting.
Cheers ~ Arne