updated 11:05 am EST, Mon February 15, 2010
WP7 has improved UI but notable drawbacks
Microsoft at Mobile World Congress officially launched Windows Phone 7 series, its first major overhaul of its mobile OS in at least five years but also a partial step back. The new platform uses a heavily Zune-influenced design and at the home screen centers on tiles: users can pin apps, contacts, playlists and other details to the home screen. It integrates not just the Zune media player (including Zune software sync) but also Xbox Live's achievements, avatars and friends.
Most features are organized into hubs. Besides Music+video and Pictures hubs that are very similar to the Zune, these also include a People hub that integrates phone contacts with Facebook and shows what's new independent of the source. An Office hub lets users create and share documents, including over Sharepoint. The Games hub will handle all Xbox Live tasks, and a Marketplace hub will provide a central app store.
Internet Explorer is also more advanced and based on the desktop version of the browser, but with multi-touch and advanced sub-pixel rendering. E-mail has a Zune-style UI but integrates with Exchange and carries iPhone-like features such as easy mass-deletion of messages.
Multi-touch, accelerometers and fast hardware should be common across all devices, Microsoft says.
Microsoft has also changed the business model for partners and will take more control over the experience; it promises a baseline for hardware (including drivers) and won't let companies directly replace user interface elements. In most cases, only tiles and some services will be extensible. However, the companies will also get phones to market faster as a result, according to the Windows developer.
The launch will include several partners, including AT&T, Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile, Orange, SFR, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Telstra, T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone; manufacturers include Dell, Garmin-ASUS, HTC, HP, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Qualcomm. Phones launching on the platform should be ready by the holidays.
However, the OS also includes a number of notable steps backwards. Microsoft in its keynote speech confirmed that it won't have Flash out of the box and has designed an interface that doesn't currently have any multitasking support. While potentially faster and simpler, the interface concedes one of Microsoft's primary advantages with Windows Mobile. The company has gone so far as to say it will continue investing in Windows Mobile 6.5 and hasn't said how easily third-party apps will reach WP7.
Microsoft has "no objection" to adding Flash, CEO Steve Ballmer adds.
The new OS is an important step for Microsoft, which has steadily lost market share as many of its partners have actively abandoned Windows Mobile in favor of Android and Symbian; in Palm's case it led to the creation of an entirely new platform. Vertically integrated companies like Apple and RIM have also taken away much of Microsoft's influence by both adding new features first and quickly overshadowing Microsoft in apps despite a much shorter time on the market. Windows Mobile has so far been hindered by a lack of support for many of the features people now consider critical, including capacitive touchscreens, accurate web browsing and modern media playback.