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Mobility Digest Review: Windows Phone 7

The wait is finally over! Windows Phone 7 is at hand. Right off the heels of windows 7 and the ever evolving Xbox platform, Microsoft has delivered its next bi-product of laser focus innovation! After taking a beating with the ancient Windows Mobile 6.5 platform, Microsoft made a conscious choice to start over from the ground up. And boy oh boy what a move that was!

Windows Phone 7 represents a healthy mix of innovation, business experience and foresight to the future of technology. Microsoft really sat back and examined everything around them. Not only their own Windows Mobile 6.5, but market leaders like apple and Google. Things like, “why did we fail? Why did apple succeed? Why is Google succeeding?” were all things that needed to be considered. And they went about doing just that. I am proud to be able to say, the end result is a gem!

When talking Windows Phone 7, there is a lot to talk about. So let’s start with the User interface. A good UI is probably one of the more relative things in the technology industry. What is visually appealing to some, might be horrid to others. So how do you go about satisfying all? Well, apple did it. They went with an icon grid model and some silky smooth transitions. Judging from the share sales of the iPhone, I think it’s a fair bet to assume Apple’s UI is widely accepted by most. So the smart thing to do would be to case study Apple, and somehow improve on what they have done. Right? Wrong! Enter Android. They’ve done exactly that, and some! Depending on who you ask (you can ask me) Google’s UI is still a mess!

So, how is Microsoft to tackle this? I don’t know, if I did, I would be working at Microsoft. Two packs of pixie dust and almost two years later, Windows Phone 7 is here. Microsoft figured out exactly how they wanted to go about this. They have produced a UI that is not only unique in almost every aspect of the word, but fully functional as well.

The first layer of the UI you see is obviously the lock screen. Microsoft wanted to make sure the lock screen stays as informative as it can be. The idea is simple; you shouldn’t always have to unlock your phone to see what’s next in your life. By turning on your phone, the user should be able to see key information like the time, how many emails or texts are unread and even what’s next on the agenda. The lock screen is well put together with some very attractive font, and is topped off nicely with the ability to customize the background picture.

After you have unlocked your phone, you are taking to your home screen area. Enter live tiles and hubs. Live tiles are a set of graphical squares or rectangles that sit on your home screen. These tiles represent an application and the services provided by that application. Take your email for example. A live tile can be created on the home screen for each email address you create. Not only does the title serve as a short cut the email inbox itself, but it displays information about the inbox as well. So at first glance, the live tile for your email will show you a count of how many emails you have unread. As new emails coming in, the tile updates itself in real time, hence the branding “live.” The idea and functionality of live tiles is one that shows promise for the future. Think of a live tile for your favorite IM application. You might not have to launch the entire application to see what someone said, the live tile for the app would simply show a quick message; “James: hi” if I want to reply, I click the title. If I want to ignore him, I do just that. Nice!

Hubs represent a single location where subsets of services live. A great example of this would be the Office hub. The office hub is a single tile, but when accessed it houses services like SharePoint, word, excel and OneNote. This really streamlines the users thought process. If you need to do something pertaining to an office application, the obvious place for you to go to achieve this would be the office hub.

Live tiles and hubs aren’t the only objects to exist on the home screen. You can also have none functional tiles that serve as shortcut links to various apps, objects and functions throughout the phone. Things like internet explorer favorites, Zune playlists or even obvious things like applications can be pinned to the home screen. It’s a very simple way to get to what you need quickly.

Once in applications themselves, you’ll notice an even more unique UI design. Tradition applications on mobile phone platforms or any other platform for that matter really have a uniform feel to them. You start at the top, and you scroll down for more information. You may have drop down menus, or triggers to another subset of menus, but for the most part, they all look and work the same. Microsoft set out to change that. Their panorama UI organizes information in columns starting from left to right. I found it to be a very different way of absorbing information but a genius one. For instance, the panorama UI makes perfect sense in a Facebook app. Instead of having links to another page for things like news feed, photos and so on, you could still have those links available and also the ability to pan right over to the next section! This really isn’t the easiest thing in the world to explain, but once you’ve seen it in action or use, it all makes perfect sense. Add some really cool transitions and graphical overlays to all of the above and you have what Microsoft calls “the metro UI.”

Microsoft took the same outside the box thinking to some of the most used functions of a phone, primarily the contacts and pictures. The hubs ideology plays a huge role here, so instead of having a contacts app, you are now treated to the “people” hub. As I mentioned earlier, hubs are a single location where multiple services are offered, the people hub is where you really get a grasp on the concept. Within the people hub, the first thing you’ll see is obviously your contacts. Pan over and you will discover the “what’s new” section. Here is where the magic comes alive. The what’s new feed is populated by the social networking sites your contacts are all linked to. When your friends update their status on Facebook for instance, you will be able to see the update right in the feed. But seeing is not all, you also have the ability to comment right from the feed. What’s new is updated two ways; the first is periodically, which is really nice. The second is upon activity, so once you hit the people hub, it triggers an update. If you pan over one more time from the what’s new feed, you get the “recent” section. Here you see a list of contacts sorted by your most recent activity, whether it was a phone call or a text message.

The same social integration treatment was given to the pictures hub. The what’s new section is alive and well in the pictures hub as well. You have the ability to link in social sites like flickr or smugmug. So whatever feeds you enjoy from those sites will always be populated and ready for you whenever you enter the hub. Pictures are organized in a very thoughtful manner and displayed beautifully. When viewing pictures, the list of options you can do are pretty much what you would expect. Things like share to Facebook, send to email or set as background. But there are two really interesting actions that deserve mention. The first is “set as favorite.” When a picture is set as a favorite, it shows up as a background image of the pictures tile on your home screen. It might not seem like a big deal, but it defiantly gives the home screen personality. You also have the ability to manually upload to SkyDrive if you have not set it to do some automatically. This is a really cool feature, especially when you have 25 gigs of storage up there.

The fun doesn’t stop there. The media experience as well as mobile gaming has also been giving some spot light. Microsoft did us all a huge favor and linked these two functions to two of their very own services. Zune is to media and Xbox Live is to games. Let’s talk about Zune first. There is no windows media player app on the phone to play music and watch videos, instead there is Zune. Any music you play is handled by the Zune software. For those of you who do not know what Zune is, trust me when I tell you, this is a good thing! Zune’s method of organizing your music is second to none, even if you don’t take advantage of the services, it will show its worth in terms of organization. And if you do decide to embrace Zune for the God send that it is, you’re in for a treat. With a Zune pass, windows phone becomes a media powerhouse like never seen before. Not only are you able to transfer your limitless music from the desktop software, you’re able to access it all from the device itself. You can manage all available music from Zune marketplace on the phone as if you were on your desktop. Not only can you download right on the phone, but you can stream as well. Although Zune pass does not include videos and movies, like wise this is all available to you on your phone. Any other videos you have on the phone will also be managed by the Zune experience.

Xbox Live is alive and well here, and its represented in the “games” hub. You might be surprised to discover, this really is Xbox live. You are able to edit your Avatar, your profile information, see friends online status and even send and reply to messages. There are even achievements to earn, which counts toward your total game score.

Not everything is about fun and games; productivity is also a huge strong point in windows phone. The office hub offers the best productivity suite you can find on a device today. Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are all here. They all work as expected and even perform above expectations in some cases. You’re also treated to two welcomed surprises. Onenote and Sharepoint are here to steal the show. One note is done very well on the phone and even offers the ability to sync directly to your SkyDrive space. Need I say more? The introduction of Sharepoint will make some businesses ecstatic, especially those who have switched their infrastructure over to the platform. The calendar is beautiful to look at and very effective. You get the traditional monthly view, or you can pan over to use the agenda view. Windows phone supports multiple calendars, and represents each with its own color. This is a highly effective way of identifying what is going on according to which calendar.

Messaging in windows phone is just about as perfect as it gets. The email interface is very minimal, but still manages to display all the information you need to see. HTML emails are displayed exactly like you’d expect them to, they are even scalable like you would be able to do in IE. Attachments and imbedded images are handled lovely. The panoramic UI plays a nice roll here as well, you have the ability to scroll through multiple filters; All, unread, flagged and urgent. These filters are surprising useful, even if you never thought to use them, you might find yourself doing so.

Internet explorer is among the biggest surprises windows phone has to offer. The UI is very minimalistic, which is a great thing. IE renders webpages with almost perfect accuracy and it does so with speed. The pinch to zoom option is the smoothest I’ve ever seen on any mobile platform. Standard features like tabs and bookmarking are all here.

Bing has made it to the windows phone in style. You can access bing by tapping the search button from the home screen. Here you will be treated to the ever famous bing image of the day and a search bar. You can either type in your search or tap the voice button to enter it. When carrying out a search, you can get back three different types of results. The order of which they appear depends on what you search for. Bing is intelligent enough to understand what you’re searching for; this means a search for pizza will not show you web searches right away. Instead, you will see a list of local results first. This is very impressive stuff. Bing maps is very effective, it’s easily comparable to the services offered by google maps on other platforms.

Aside from the major improvements and ShowTime features, Windows phone is rich with little features that aren’t all apparent at first. When holding down the windows button, you start up the voice command prompt. Even with a good amount of noise around me, it is able to understand what I said. It’s great for launching apps and carrying out quick searches. It really is fun to see things like a surprised smiley face on your messages tile when you have a large number of unread text messages. There are plenty of little things to discover after the initial shock and awe is over. You will find yourself saying “wow that’s cool” fairly often.

Some key parts to the OS have not been implemented as yet, things like copy and paste and the much requested task switching. Although I have yet to run into an instance so far where I needed copy and paste, the task switching is something I would love to see right now. I’ve also noticed the social section of the Zune experience is not there as yet. I have to doubt they will offer it later on down the line.

Missing features or desirable ones bring about a very important infrastructure feature of windows phone. Microsoft will be providing all updates to the phones themselves. This is great news. This means, as soon as it is ready and released, it will be all yours. Updates are handled two ways depending on the size. Smaller updates will go out over the air, while the larger updates will be handled through the Zune desktop software.

How about those apps? Microsoft really handled windows phone 7 with care. They made some very careful choices when it came to the app echo system. The first and probably most important was the development culture that needed to establish. They based a lot of the tools on Silverlight. The average person has no idea what this means, including myself. But what I can tell you is, the feedback from the developer community is “this is great!” Without going into detail, windows phone 7 will be launching with over 1000 apps in the marketplace, so I would say their back end development strategy for the platform is working out well. As with any app store, developers have the ability to push out updates for their individual apps through the marketplace. What is important to understand, there aren’t 30 different flash light apps, but they are plenty of key apps people would require. Things like adobe reader, Netflix and even a weather channel app are here.

What about hardware? Here is another strong point for windows phone 7. With almost all the major OEM companies on board, you can expect a variety of beautiful devices, all with different personality. You’d be hard press not to find a phone that will fit everyone. What is even more impressive about it all, no matter what phone or OEM you go with; the user experience will be the same across the board. Gone are the days when you would go with a HTC phone simply because you knew Sense UI was the best things out there. Here are the days where you go for that Samsung phone because you know the screen on that phone is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. And in doing so, you would have sacrificed none of your windows phone experience.

Microsoft has been on a roll ever since windows 7. With the release of windows phone 7, you can clearly see they are not leaving anything to chance any more. They are very serious about this product and the mobile industry as a whole. Much like the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” completely disappeared with the release of windows 7, look for the “windows mobile? Lol yea right!” stigma to follow that same path. Windows phone is an excellent mobile platform and is without doubt on par with all of the other offerings. What puts windows phone ahead of the rest is its hidden business model. Microsoft is not giving you a device with a portal to applications. Microsoft is giving you a device that connects to the services that revolve around your life! There is a lot to be said about that. It is amazing how much of a heavy hitter the first iteration of the platform is, and in time, it will only get better! Windows Phone 7 is an excellent platform and deserves a place in your digital life!