Even in its first incomplete version, Windows Phone was a revolutionary take the smart phone, and not yet another me-too design. But this revolution wasn't always obvious. Most people will point to the Metro user interface and its expressive tiles as an obvious example of how this platform isn't just differentiated but is also superior to what the competition offers. Fair enough. But when I say revolution, I mean it. And the Metro UI is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to innovation in Windows Phone.
Conceptually, it's possible that the single biggest innovation in Windows Phone--and this was as true with the initial 2010 release as it is today with Windows Phone 7.5--is that this mobile OS is cloud-centric, not PC centric. Consider how devices of the past typically worked to understand the difference: You'd use applications like Outlook to manage your email and personal data and then sync that with a device when it was tethered to the PC. And you'd use Windows Media Player or iTunes to sync digital media content. Windows evolved to include various utilities that were designed solely to sync content from the PC to devices.
But with Windows Phone, Microsoft is taking the controversial but correct position that it is the cloud, and not the PC, that sits at the center of this paradigm, that you should manage your email, contacts, and calendar in Hotmail or Exchange/Office 365, not Outlook on a single PC. That you should utilize cloud services like Zune Music Pass for digital media, which you can access from the PC, the web, or your phone.
This strategy was so amazing, Apple aped it a year later in iOS 5 and iCloud, and from what I can tell, no one but me even noticed that. But give Apple some credit, since that company's solutions are more cohesive and complete than what Microsoft offers now with Windows Phone. And that's because, despite all the forward-leaning goodness of Windows Phone, the pure revolution of it all, Microsoft actually didn't go far enough. Still doesn't, in v2 (Windows Phone 7.5). There are holes. And these holes mean that you still need to physically tether your Windows Phone to your PC and manually sync data between the two.
Maybe we'll get there in v3. But for now there are still some key PC/phone sync operations for which there is no cloud equivalent. The biggest issue, in my opinion, is with digital photos. Microsoft provides a feature in Windows Phone that allows you to automatically upload every single picture you've taken with the phone's camera to Windows Live SkyDrive for backup and sharing purposes. But this feature, called Auto Upload, does not provide an option for uploading full-sized, full-resolution versions of your photos. (As does iCloud, which implemented this feature, again, a year later.) Instead, the pictures you upload to SkyDrive are condensed and compressed, from their original size (8 megapixels on my Samsung Focus S) down to a paltry VGA-ish quality. Microsoft's excuse is that these smaller pictures save bandwidth and are fine for sharing online. But there should be an option for full photo uploads and, come on, no one shares photos from SkyDrive anyway. So you tether the thing to your PC and sync manually like its 1999 all over again.
(Just an aside, but the fact that Microsoft then makes you sync photos through the Zune software is yet another sin, though one outside the realm of this particular discussion.)
But there have been improvements to this situation in Windows Phone 7.5. And one of the ones I appreciate the most is the new support for over-the-air podcasts via a new on-device Podcasts Marketplace. All the better, this is also an example of a feature that Microsoft implements better in Windows Phone than does Apple in iOS.
Note: Except for one thing. As is often the case with Windows Phone features, the over-the-air support for podcasts and the Podcasts Marketplace is currently available only in the United States and even Zune PC-based podcast support is limited to several of the markets in which Windows Phone is sold. For a great list of which Windows Phone 7.5 features are available in which locales, please visit Andrew Birch's excellent Windows Phone 7.5 Feature Availability Matrix.
In the old way of doing things--which is still supported for you luddites, of course, you would find and subscribe to podcasts via the Zune Marketplace in the Zune PC software and then sync these podcasts with your phone. For podcasts not represented in the Marketplace, you could use an "Add a Favorite Podcast" link in the Zune PC software to manually subscribe with an RSS feed URL.
When you subscribe to a podcast through the PC like this, you can determine how episodes are downloaded and kept, and which episodes are synced to the device--all of them, unplayed episodes, only the first unplayed episode, or none of them--on a per-podcast basis. And if you live in the US, at least, you could manually download episodes on the go from the device's Podcast Marketplace.
But the new way to do this in Windows Phone 7.5 is preferred, especially if you'll never play any of the subscribed podcasts via the PC. So instead of using the Zune PC software to find and subscribe to podcasts, you can now do so directly on the phone itself.
To do so, navigate to Zune and then Marketplace. From the Marketplace menu, choose Podcasts.
From here, simply browse around through the various screens--Featured, Top, New, and Genres--or use the Search button at the bottom to find a podcast. When you find one you like, just click the Subscribe button.
Here, you'll be given an opportunity to decide settings related to the podcast series. These include:
Episodes. The number of episodes to keep on the device at any time. By default, Windows Phone will automatically download and store the 3 latest episodes, but you can optionally choose 1, 2, 4, 5, or all episodes instead.
Playback order. This will determine the order in which the episodes appear when viewed from within the Zune software. The default is "newest episodes first," but you can optionally change this to "oldest episodes first."
(Music + Videos) Settings. This button links to the Music + Videos settings screen, where you can view and change an important option related to podcasts: Whether to download new episodes over Wi-Fi only. This option is checked by default to prevent podcast downloads from eating up your bandwidth, an important consideration since most people do not have unlimited 3G/4G wireless plans these days.
Once you've viewed the settings and made any necessary changes, tap Confirm. If it can, Windows Phone will begin downloading new episodes for you automatically.
(Now, when you visit this podcast via the Marketplace, you'll see different buttons--Unsubscribe and Series Settings--instead of Subscribe. But you can also unsubscribe to a podcast from the Zune interface: Just select the podcast and tap Unsubscribe.)
You may be wondering where Windows Phone's support for over-the-air podcasts surpasses that of iOS. Well, the Windows Phone solution is complete. You can find and subscribe to podcasts, of course, but Windows Phone will also automatically keep your podcasts series up to date. So as new episodes appear, they'll be downloaded automatically. Likewise, older episodes are automatically deleted according to the retention schedule you specified. It all happens automatically. (There's also a Marketplace link at the bottom of each podcast series screen so you can easily manually download other episodes if needed too.)
On the iPhone and other iOS devices, you can use the iTunes app to find podcasts and download individual episodes. But there's no way to subscribe. Instead, you're responsible for manually visiting the store, discovering when new episodes are available, and then downloading them.
Hopefully, Microsoft will expand its support for on-device podcasts in the future and, of course, further expand the platform's already excellent cloud capabilities. In its current form, Windows Phone 7.5 is this close to finally breaking the PC sync barrier for good. And while over-the-air support for podcasts may be a small win, especially given its lack of geographical availability, it is a step in the right direction.