The last three years has seen an explosion in new smartphone operating systems. Apple's iPhone OS,Google's Android, Palm's webOS, and Nokia's Maemo all offer rich, touch-driven platforms for a new generation of fast, Internet-capable, high-end telephonic pocket-sized computers. The one company missing from that list is, of course, Microsoft. Though a long-time player in the smartphone OS market, Windows Mobile is outclassed by its competition. The recent 6.5 release has done little to redress the balance. Windows Mobile is slow, unstable, clunky, and fundamentally not designed for use with fingers. Today at Mobile World Congress, Microsoft showed off its new phone platform for the first time. Everything that we knew and loathed about Windows Mobile is gone. Even the name is different. It's now "Windows Phone 7 Series."
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That Microsoft has been working on a successor to Windows Mobile 6, due for release some time this year, is no secret. That this successor was intended to be the platform that got Redmond back in the game was equally well-known. But beyond that, little more was known. There have been rumours—especially of a Zune Phone—but nothing concrete.
Microsoft really has changed nearly everything. Most obviously, the user interface is new. Touch is mandatory for all 7 Series devices, and the user interface reflects that; it's touch-driven through and through. No longer will phone users have to use small, fiddly, desktop-oriented scroll bars; smooth finger scrolling with inertia is the order of the day. The finger-friendliness is exemplified by the new start screen. There are large panels in a smooth-scrolling grid. The look is clean and crisp, balancing at-a-glance information—counts of unread text messages and e-mails neatly displayed in their squares, for example—with simple thumb-sized accessibility. Each panel represents a particular "hub"—a place where all related information (be it contacts, photos, music and videos, etc.) is brought together and managed. As you move between the screens of each hub, smooth animations rotate and slide information into place, giving the user interface a kind of cohesive "joined up" feel.
A familiar and distinctive UI
The Zune HD's user interface is the clear precursor to 7 Series', and many stylistic elements from the media player are carried over to the phone interface. Text is large, clear, and crisp; sometimes (deliberately) oversized, so it does not fit entirely on screen. Likewise, the Zune HD used the same flipping, scrolling, and zooming concepts to drill down from the general to the specific, and this is very much the motif used in Windows Phone. The transitions from the start screen to the contact list to a single contact are all fluid and attractive.
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This relationship with the Zune HD is especially clear when using the music and video capabilities; in essence the entire Zune HD interface has been plonked straight into the Windows Phone interface.
The minimal aesthetic will not be to everyone's taste; the oversized text in particular seems to raise eyebrows. I personally think it looks good, but more importantly, Windows Phone 7 Series has a definite look to it, just as the iPhone does. Windows Mobile 6.5 is a mish-mash of different concepts, with some parts finger-friendly but many not. Different parts use different styles, with the result that it feels very disjointed—there's no particular Windows Mobile look-and-feel. Windows Phone, in contrast, has a very strong visual identity; all the screens are clearly Windows Phone with consistent user interaction and styling.
To reinforce that identity, another old Windows Mobile mainstay is ditched: custom interfaces. All Windows Phone devices will look and work the same way (colors and the exact layout of the start screen can be specified by the user, but the basic square concept is immutable), so no longer will vendors like HTC be able to supply their own front-end. Whether this will sit well with the OEMs is unclear; one of the major ways in which they differentiated themselves was through their custom user interfaces. With those now gone, differentiation between vendors will be greatly reduced. The upside for consumers is that Windows Phones will be far more predictable and approachable, with the same high-quality interface available regardless of which vendor you pick.
Microsoft loves the cloud
Taking a page from Palm's book, Windows Phone is connected with the cloud. The contacts list is no mere list of phone numbers; it incorporates Facebook and Windows Live contacts, providing a single view of all of your contacts. Drill down into a contact and you'll see his or her latest status updates, all in real time. Contact syncing with these services is all performed over-the-air—one Windows Mobile feature that has thankfully been retained.
The other area where the connections are particularly important is in the Photos hub. Photos are a major part of the social experience on networks such as Facebook, and 7 Series exploits that for its photo capabilities. Easy access to new photos uploaded by your contacts, easy sharing and management of photos, all cloud connected, and again, done over-the-air.