The Empire Strikes Back- Windows Phone 7

Yesterday Samsung launched their first phone using their new Bada OS, and while it seemed to be feature rich I criticized Bada for looking relatively derivative, dated, almost boring compared to the beautiful GUI designs of their current class leaders in Smartphone OSes. There was nothing to really distinguish it or promote it over an iPhone, Android phone running the latest version, or a Palm Pre.

Well no phone vendor has had a worse 2.5 years since the iPhone launch than Microsoft (save for perhaps Nokia), and with their marketing share decreasing and their key hardware partners being courted (HTC primarily), it’s perhaps not hyperbole to say Windows 7 is a “bet the relevance of MS in mobile smartphone market” move. If Windows 7 doesn’t stop the slide, MS may have to decide between the costly choice of building their own phones or become simply a mobile apps creation company.

How did MS do?

Well, it’s not boring, dated, or derivative of the other OSes that’s for sure. It’s radically different. Based on what has been shown, it’s going to force Windows Phone producers to follow a strict hardware design. The current myriad of physical form factors allowed by WinMo 6.x does not appear to be available for Window Phone 7. What’s being presented is a large screen candybar look that the iPhone popularized, so it’s either a virtual keyboard phone or some kind of slider phone.

MS is definitely taking the whole “windows” name to its’ most literal utility. The home screen has a series of window pane widgets/application launchers that MS is calling Tiles. The overall look and feel of the OS is heavily lifted from the Zune HD device. Previous WinMo fans are going to be a little lost with the new look. This radical break from the past is a new move from MS. I haven’t found confirmation yet but it’s hard to imagine an existing application for WinMo 6x working in this OS. The windows motif is extended towards screen transitions, they are literally window panes opening and closing.

There are definitely some weird GUI conventions at work. Menus are not sized to fit on the screen. The address book application, often appears to be “Opl” or “Peop” and it’s taking up nearly 25% of the available screen real estate in the address book. The mail application looks pretty good, but again the Inbox options at the top Unread/All/Flags take up significant screen real estate. There is still room for 5 message, but the Sender line is also larger than the summary text, and you only get one line of summary depending upon the title. It looks fine, but MS is making some interesting decisions in terms of utility of screen space for even the most basic smartphone applications. There’s lots of animation that is arguably superfluous or unnecessary. Whether those animations enhance the overall GUI, again is debatable.

Here’s a walkthrough recorded at the presentation today.  For a more expansive look, follow this link to MSN doing a 22 minute presentation on the phone.

You have to give MS credit for starting over completely. It’s certainly a new looking OS. It’s visually different than what else is out there. Going with Zune internally probably made a lot of sense, but I’m guessing that the OS look and feel is going to have a really divisive element. It’s like a daring fashion statement. Not everyone is going to love it. And it lends to some questionable UI utility decisions. Home screen navigation is similar to the iPhone in that you can navigate to different window tile pages by swiping to the right. The window tiles appear to be application launcher icons such as Address Book, Internet Explorer, Mail, but also widgets like weather, FaceBook, and MMS, SMS, Windows Messenger. The tiles will update in real time, providing information without having to open the application. Now I could easily see tile space on the home screen being used up quickly, forcing users to have to swipe to the next screen of tiles. At a certain point, swiping 4 times to get to a page in contrast to one touch to launch an application seems like a utility push. But the paradigm of getting updates for one person (mail, text, Facebook) versus application driven information is an interesting transition.

Some knee jerk reactions to what has been shown:

1. The next iPhone OS really needs some new UI element for the home screen to present more widget/dashboard type information. It also could use some widget updating capability for application developers.

2. Apple is going to need to consider how they want to integrate social networking deeper into the core OS of the iPhone.

3. Hardware vendors like Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Sony Ericsson now have a myriad of OS choices. Each OS is going to have tradeoffs and advantages. Hardware vendors will have to decide which OS gives them the best combination of pricing, hardware options, application store/developer tools. HTC for instance could decide to ship both Windows Series 7 phones and Android phones for the upcoming year. Does creating hardware for two OSes lead to eventual problems for HTC in terms of dividing their attention between two OS creators?

4. Samsung’s Bada OS looks like a non starter. There’s nothing new.

5. MS is taking a massive risk with this all new OS. The scorched earth approach to their previous phone OS is going to tank Windows Mobile phone sales until these new phones appear. Would you buy a phone knowing that it won’t be compatible with the new OS coming? And the vague launch date of Holiday 2010 better stick. Any further delays could be deadly. Also, to date no mention of  the release of an SDK for developers. It took about 7 months for iPhone app development to become a killer difference maker from the time the SDK was released. Clock is ticking on MS already.

6. MS  took a similar sized risk going with an OS based on the Zune HD. The Zune HD has not exactly been a great seller. Now, the OS may not be to blame for that fact, but the Zune OS hasn’t exactly set the world on fire either. And unlike Apple’s decision to base the iPad on the iPhone due to the installed base. There’s no real installed base to prove this OS was the right direction. Also, there’s no real Zune application community who can port their apps to Windows Phone Series 7 for launch.

7. The gap between early February and Holiday 2010 is even greater than Apple’s iPhone introduction to launch. This window gives significant time for Palm, Apple, Google, and Nokia to update/improve both their OSes and their phone lineups. Unique features of the Zune could look pretty ordinary by November. In addition, there’s a good chance that the new hardware requirements for Window Phone Series 7 will kill any chance of truly cheap Smartphones to be able to offer a significantly lower price than Blackberry, iPhone, Android Phones, etc.

8. With Windows Phone moving to a more iPhone candybar shape, the screen/physical keyboard layout is being left to Blackberry, Nokia and Palm Pixi. Previously, there were a number of Windows Mobile phones that adopted that physical layout. As stated before, how long can Blackberry go without a big screen/slider keyboard phone, and how long can Palm not have a big screen touchscreen phone?

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