What I Learned at the Windows Phone 7 Launch

I'm in New York this week at the Windows Phone 7 international launch event, which included a press conference with Microsoft and its premier, US-based mobile carrier AT&T, as well some other related meetings, showcases, and a reviewers workshop. For me, the launch event is the beginning of a new phase of technology coverage, since I wrote a book about Windows Phone 7—Windows Phone 7 Secrets—over the summer and anticipate ramping up mobile coverage dramatically going forward. But thanks to Microsoft's attempts at secrecy over the past several months, there were indeed some new bits of info that came out of the launch. Here's what I found out.

First, there have been some subtle changes to the Windows Phone OS since the developer preview release that's on my prototype Windows Phone device. (I should be getting the final code soon, I was told.) There's nothing major, just some niceties: Word Mobile and Excel Mobile now work in landscape mode, whereas before they were portrait only. You can pin OneNote notes to the Start screen. That kind of thing.

More profound are the changes that are coming down the pike. As soon as Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7 in February, it received immediate and steady complaints about certain missing features. These include copy and paste, multitasking for third-party applications, the lack of tethering, and so on. Over the summer, I was told that Microsoft intends to correct these and other missing features over time, thanks to its ability to bypass the wireless carriers and update users' phones directly. But this week, Microsoft corporate VP Joe Belfiore was more specific about one of these features: Copy and paste, he said, would be added "in early 2011."

(Incidentally, while a lot has been made about Windows Phone's lack of a basic feature like copy and paste, the one thing most don't understand is that this sort of cross-application functionality is actually very difficult to do securely in a managed environment. On Windows Phone, each application is sandboxed and prevented from accessing other apps and their data. File access and whatnot comes from a set of simple UIs called Pickers and Choosers. No word yet on how Microsoft intends to implement copy and paste, just that it's coming.)

Microsoft's ability to push updates directly to users mirrors similar functionality on iPhone and Android, but it also speaks to the fact that, with this initial release, Windows Phone is for consumers first, businesses second. Or, as Microsoft describes it, it's a phone that consumers will bring with them to work. And while the company did briefly highlight some business-oriented functionality around SharePoint interaction and the Outlook Mobile client, many questions are still unanswered, including which subset of Exchange policies are supported on the OS. My guess is that 2011 update will make Windows Phone a more complete enterprise offering.

Regarding the devices, Microsoft finally showed off final hardware and what I saw looked impressive. AT&T is the premier and initial launch partner in the US and will have three devices in market by the end of the year. On November 8, it will launch the Samsung Focus, which is my current choice when the time comes to switch: This very thin and shockingly light device features a superior 4.3-inch OLED display and 8 GB of storage. A few weeks later, AT&T will launch two more devices, the LG Quantum, with a 4.3-inch screen, 16 GB of storage, a slide-out hardware keyboard, and DLNA support for you digital media fans (this makes it compatible with the Windows 7 "Play To" feature), and the HTC Surround, a media- and gaming-centric device with a 3.8-inch screen, 16 GB of storage, two surprisingly loud (and Dolby Digital Surround-based) speakers, and a kickstand on the back. Each device will retail for $199.99 and will ship with common Windows Phone 7 features like 1 GHz Snapdragon processor and a 5 megapixel camera.

Of course, AT&T isn't the only launch partner. T-Mobile will deliver its HTC HD7 by the end of the year, and Microsoft says that more than 60 mobile operators in over 30 countries worldwide will deliver Windows Phone 7 devices by the end of the year. And early next year, CDMA support is coming which should trigger a second wave of devices from Sprint and Verizon.

While mobile operators won't be able to overwrite the Windows Phone UI with their own obnoxious creations as they did with Windows Mobile, Microsoft has apparently thrown them a different kind of bone: Each will be able to provide its own range of unique services, and while this was quickly glossed over, there are even certain Xbox Live games and presumably other apps that will only be made available via certain carriers. Microsoft sees this as a way for its partners to differentiate themselves, but I could see this plan backfiring.

I'll be writing a review of Windows Phone 7 soon—Microsoft wants me to wait for shipping hardware—but having used a near-final version of the software on a prototype phone for several months now, I'm impressed. I feel that Microsoft has created a third great consumer smartphone platform, alongside iPhone and Android, and given Microsoft's roots, I'm sure it will make the transition to the enterprise as well. As I noted in the past, there are still questions, and some missing functionality, especially for those businesses that need to tightly manage their employees' phones. But this is a new platform and the pieces are in place.

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