Windows Phone 7: It’s a Whole New Ballgame

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Ever since Windows Phone 7 was announced, I’ve been trying to come to terms with just how big a change it is. Despite its name, Microsoft’s next smartphone operating system has virtually nothing in common with its predecessors.

It will have a completely different user interface and won’t run applications written for the earlier versions. In short, Microsoft has wiped the board clean and is starting over.

This company definitely needed to do something; Windows Mobile has been losing market share to rivals like Apple’s iPhone OS and Google’s Android OS for years. The only thing that has slowed this trend has been companies like HTC covering up the standard user interface with ones they have developed themselves. The more of Microsoft’s UI these alternate user interfaces left exposed, the more the users complained. That’s a serious condemnation.

It took too long, but I give Microsoft credit for finally accepting the inevitable and completely dumping its the user interface it has been using for many years and creating a whole new one. Especially as the new one seems to be a vast improvement.

Old vs. New
When Microsoft first designed the Pocket PC — later renamed Windows Mobile — the majority of mobile device users were business people. So Microsoft made a user interface that appealed to this group. It emphasized scheduling and tasks (see here).

It also emulated this company’s desktop OS in many ways, on the theory that people were familiar with how Windows did things, so learning to use a smartphone that worked much the same ways would be easier.

Windows Phone 7Back then, touchscreens were in, but so were styli. Screens were relatively small and definitely low resolution, and in order to fit as much in as possible, buttons and control elements were small and meant to be tapped on with the tip of a stylus.

Jump forward a decade, and the situation is completely different. Smartphones are used more for entertainment than work. So the new Windows Phone 7 emphasizes the features consumers want: social networking, pictures, games, etc.

The venerable Start button is gone, along with any hints of the desktop OS.

And no one wants to use a stylus anymore, so Windows Phone 7 has been redesigned to be controlled with a fingertip. The tiny buttons are gone, replaced with large ones. Fortunately, displays have grown larger, too.

Just about the only significant similarity between old and new is that both include Microsoft Office Mobile and support for synchronizing with Microsoft Exchange, so smartphones running Windows Phone 7 can still be used for work, even if that’s not their focus anymore. 

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater?
As much as I like the new user interface, I’m not anywhere near as fond of Windows Phone 7’s other big change: no compatibility with current software.

The wide array of third-party applications was Windows Mobile’s greatest strength… I could argue it was its only strength. I’m trying to see the logic behind the decision to give this up.

Developers are going to have to re-write their apps, as well as submit them for approval so they can appear in the official software store — which will apparently be the only software store.  It’s my understand that this is Microsoft’s way of insuring that software conforms to the new Windows Phone look and feel. 

There’s a part of me that can agree with this. The vast majority of current Windows Mobile apps were written to be used with a stylus and so are virtually unusable with a fingertip because all the control elements are too small. Finding a way to force developers to update the user interface on their apps makes sense.

But getting to this goal requires so much sacrifice. It feels to me like Windows Phone is chewing its own foot off to escape from a trap.

Microsoft encouraged companies making Windows Mobile-based phones to explore a wide range of shapes and sizes.  The choices for companies making Windows Phone devices will be much more limited, as Microsoft is going to specify some hardware requirements, most notably a WVGA, capacitive touchscreen.

During his presentation on this new operating system, CEO Steve Ballmer made the argument that by limiting hardware options, Microsoft is fostering innovation.  This is completely illogical… but I still agree with Microsoft’s decision.

Over the years, companies made some very marginal Windows Mobile smartphones, and these left plenty of customers with a bad taste in their mouth about this operating system. The usual cause for bad performance was insufficient RAM, but slow processors were sometimes a culprit too. With Windows Phone 7, we’ll be sure that any smartphone we buy is going to have good performance.

Incidentally, Microsoft is also no longer going to allow its licensees to replace the default user interface with their own. They will be allowed to tweak it a bit, within certain limits, but the days of TouchFLO and TouchWiz on Windows phones are gone.

Time for Tweaking
Despite this week’s official unveiling, we’re still about nine months away from the first smartphones running Windows Phone 7 hitting the market, so Microsoft has plenty of time to make some adjustments to it.

In the coming months, I’m hoping that Microsoft will seriously consider adding a compatibility layer that will allow it to run current Windows Mobile apps, at least during a transition phase. Otherwise, those who buy the first models running this OS will almost certainly have a very limited selection of third-party apps to choose from.

As for the other features of Windows Phone 7, I don’t think they need many changes at all — the new user interface is the best move Microsoft has made in years, and I welcome the new hardware requirements.




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