Microsoft Mobile Do-Over: Windows Phone 7

Microsoft began setting a new mobile strategy in 2008, envisioning a completely new platform, reorganized under new leadership, and with a substantially bulked up budget.

Why was such a dramatic shift needed?  Pretty simple.  The Windows Mobile platform which first shipped in 2005 is dated, and well, not that great.  Consider it lacked true business focus, allowed for customization of UI by handset makers which resulted in confusion, was stylus focused (i.e. no touchy) and had no app marketplace strategy making the distribution of apps much more difficult.  Bottom line – time for a redo, reset, and do-over.

From my reading, some highlights of the new platform will include:

  • A very different UI (start screen, 4 finger touch sensitive, 7 primary hubs).
  • Tight control over customization ensuring a consistent user experience.A new kernel that utilizes a new development platform based on .Net Compact Framework, Silverlight, and XNA game development platform.
  • Browsing via an IE7 variant.
  • Support for multitasking of core apps (phone, music), but not third part apps.  However, third party apps will have a suspend mode, so switching between apps should be fast.
  • Reliance on online services for various sync-centric services via wireless network or cellular network.  Synching of email, contacts, and calendar will also occur via online services.
  • Close integration of Bing, Exchange, and Xbox.

It also looks like the Windows phone UI will follow a standard page-by-page information architecture that Microsoft is referring to as hubs.  The initial release will ship with 7 hubs:  people, pictures, games, music & video, office, and marketplace (similar to Apple’s app store).  Pretty standard stuff, with the possible exception of the office hub which will include menus for accessing standard office documents and a SharePoint menu for accessing Office documents stored on a SharePoint server.  Microsoft’s ability to tightly integrate the phone with office documents and SharePoint could be a real differentiator.  I love the way you can access Google Docs via all kinds of Android and iPhone apps.  It would be nice to have the same kinds of great apps for all things office.

If you are a developer, there’s good news and bad news.  First, the good news:  you get an all-new developer platform completely different from the old windows mobile world.    The environment sounds similar to the Xcode environment used for iPhone development.  It includes tools for developers, a testing runtime, cloud connection services, and a deployment process.  I have not seen the development environment first hand so I cannot comment on the degree to which it matches the elegance of the Apple Xcode environment.  There are Apple-like restrictions on app creation such as no modification of core hub screens, no persistent data storage, and all apps must be deployed via the marketplace.  The bad news – all old windows mobile apps will not run on the Windows 7 phones. Many handset makers (Dell, Garmin, HTC, HP, LG, Samsung, Sony, Ericsson, and Toshiba) and carriers (AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, SFR, Sprint, Telecome Italia, Temefonica, Telstra, T-Mobile USA, Verizone, and Vodafone) have committed to the platform.  App builders are lining up to start building applications as well.

So can Microsoft compete with the market leader Blackberry, the sexy iPhone, and the up-and-comer Android?  Only time will tell.  One thing is for certain, that much of the world’s computing, email processing, and internet browsing will be done via smart phones.  All the hardware and operating system players know it’s critical to have an offering.  And Microsoft has mountains of cash ($31B as of Jan 31 2009).  I would not count them out.

I welcome your comments,
Mike Brannan