We've been hearing about Windows Phone 7 since early this year and it's promised for release before 2010 is out. Microsoft's latest mobile OS feels pretty good to use, but I can't help thinking that adding applications to it won't entirely enhance the experience.
After offering a limited preview of Telstra's hub software for the platform yesterday at its Tech Ed 2010 conference in Queensland, Microsoft today let journalists have a longer (but supervised) play with prototype Windows Phone 7 models from Samsung and HTC. Given the phones' prototype status and the fact that the devices weren't equipped with SIMs, this wasn't a full-scale evaluation, more a series of first impressions.
Indeed, the list of features that Microsoft didn't want to talk about was arguably longer than what it would disclose. We couldn't check out the marketplace for installing additional apps, which isn't entirely surprising given that external developers can't even submit those for consideration until early October. The Games hub on the device was also the early interim design, not the Xbox Live enhanced version that's already done the rounds. So the emphasis for me was on the main productivity and communications tools, all of which have been well documented by this point.
One point that's worth reiterating up front: while carriers can develop hubs like the Telstra one and have them installed by default on phones they ship, they can't lock them onto the phone in the fashion we've seen with earlier models. If you decide you don't want that particular hub on your main screen, you can just drag it away. This is welcome news!
As many other testers have noted, the best thing about Windows Phone 7 is that it feels nothing whatsoever like Windows. The selling point for earlier versions of Windows Mobile has always been "it's the interface you know", but it's been questionable whether that's an interface anyone wants to know within a mobile environment.
Having started from scratch and focused on touch-screen gestures (along with the frankly Android-like compulsory buttons in the hardware design), the phone is very easy to adapt to. The high-res screens look great, the tiles make it easy to access apps without feeling overwhelmed by icons, and the enforced use of lower case everywhere makes for a nice design aesthetic that's very consistent across the UI.
Having a good-looking phone is important to many people, but my biggest concern with smart phones is whether they can actually help get things done. My feelings about this on Windows Phone 7 are mixed, especially when it comes to the built-in editing functions for Office documents. Yes, it's nice to have the option, but by the time the on-screen keyboard pops up, adding text (or a comment) to a document still seems like a pretty crowded experience. I'm a fan of physical keyboards anyway, but in a Windows Mobile 7 context, I think it would be essential if you wanted to do more than just quickly reply to text messages and email.
Not being able to properly test the marketplace was a major nuisance, especially as apps are supposed to be able to integrate tightly with existing functions. For instance, if (for example) a Flickr app was released, Flickr photo options should also become available in the main Pictures app. This will need to be carefully handled to avoid users becoming overwhelmed with options. I can't help suspecting that the phenomenon we've seen on Windows itself in the past — far too many applications attaching themselves to right-click menus — might also happen here. In some ways, the phone feels like adding apps to it will make it messier, not more appealing.
Right now, I can't imagine myself buying a Windows Mobile 7 phone, but that's a reflection of my own tastes, not a reason to assume that platform won't succeed. (I can't imagine myself buying an iPhone either, to put that into perspective.) An awful lot will depend on what applications appear. Let's hope the slightly silly rules that apply to developers won't put them off.