First impression: Windows Phone 7 looks promising
Microsoft is re-entering the already crowded smart phone market with a new mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7. LG, HTC, Dell and other manufacturers will begin rolling out phones running the new OS on Nov. 8.
Initially, five phones will be launched in the U.S. on carriers T-mobile and AT&T. Microsoft is working with Verizon and Sprint to launch phones on their networks.
Microsoft has long been a participant in the smart phone space, starting with early Pocket PC phones. But Windows Phone 7 is a total reworking of Microsoft's previous efforts. The new OS incorporates the Zune media player and has popular features familiar to iPhone and Android phone users.
The new interface, evolved from Zune, uses "tiles" instead of icons that display information as well as launch applications. It's a conscious attempt by Microsoft to integrate content into the look and feel of the OS.
Special tiles, called hubs,link content based on familiar themes. For instance, the People hub combines Facebook feeds, text messages, maps and contact information into one space. The Music + Videos hub combines all media apps and content, while Pictures does the same for photos.
The web browser is a mobile version of Internet Explorer 8 (without flash, though Microsoft and Adobe are working on that).
Where Microsoft may be able to stand out is in Windows Phone 7's integration with Bing, Bing maps, Outlook, and especially with Xbox Live and the ubiquitous Office suite of applications.
For users who want (or need) to work on documents in the Word environment, spreadsheets in the Excel environment and presentations in the PowerPoint environment, Windows Phone 7 may be their best mobile solution.
And for gamers, this is the closest Xbox Live integration available in the smart phone market.
One of the first phones to feature Windows Mobile 7 is the HTC Surround, which will be available from AT&T. Similar in height and width and slightly thicker than Apple's iPhone, the Surround's hardware gimmick is a slide-out surround sound speaker panel that, in essence, makes it a Zune boombox. Compared with the typical smart phone, the speaker is an improvement when playing songs or games.
But for the best sound it’s hard to beat the headphones, although the external speaker makes the Surround a great speakerphone.
Overall, it's a fine phone, with good sound and reception and all the things consumers expect from high-end smart phones: 3G speed, 480 x 800 WVGA touch-screen, 16 GB internal storage, 5 megapixel camera with flash and 720p HD video recording, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and e-mail (and Exchange integration).
The bigger story, though, is Microsoft's re-entry into the already crowded smart phone market with yet another OS to compete with Apple's iOS, Google's Android and Research in Motion's Blackberry OS.
A new app store is being launched, called Marketplace. (For developers, an SDK and programming tools are already available, and apps can be written in the Xbox development environment XNA or using Silverlight/C#/XAML.)
It's a big push on Microsoft's part and a clear signal that Microsoft is taking mobile seriously. At this stage of the game, it'll be interesting to see if the reigning leader in desktop computing can take on the big boys in mobile.
Check back in a few weeks as we take Windows Phone 7 on a more strenuous test drive.
--Thomas Suh Lauder
Photo: HTC Surround (AT&T) Credit: Microsoft Corp.