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Windows Phone 7 Series Preview, Part 1

Windows Phone 7 Series Preview, Part 1

While I would have enjoyed being in Barcelona for the Windows Phone 7 Series announcement, previous commitments prevented that. But I can at least do what I do for Apple keynote events and provide a quick, off-the-cuff overview of the Windows Phone 7 Series announcement presentation and what Microsoft announced. My initial response, for whatever it's worth is very positive. But then that was true of what Palm announced last year around WebOS and its first new-generation device, the Pre, and that platform certainly hasn't taken off in any appreciable way. The future is volatile, and while there's no way to know what will happen down the road, Microsoft has at least created what appears to be a viable mobile platform for the future. I'm eager to see what happens.

Introducing Windows Phone 7 Series

While Apple generates buzz automatically, Microsoft hasn't been so lucky. Regardless, the introduction of Windows Phone 7 Series has touched off a fascinating bit of buzz online. And the press conference didn't disappoint. Microsoft brought out the big guns--CEO Steve Ballmer, of course, but also Joe Belfiore, the guy who is most closely associated with Microsoft's best user experiences, including Media Center and the Zune HD. That he's working on Windows Phone 7 Series is, I think, the best indication yet that Microsoft is serious about making this thing a success. So kudos to Joe, and to Microsoft, for that.

"Today's gotta be the biggest day of my career," Belfiore noted, which is saying something given his almost 20 year run at Microsoft.

With regards to Windows Phone 7, Belfiore said that the smart phone market with which Microsoft will now compete represents an opportunity for change. All the iPhone-type phones look the same and look like PCs. But phones aren't PCs, he said, and Microsoft wants to move beyond the PC metaphor and design. "We asked, how can we build a phone that focuses on the end user and the things that matter most to them?" he said. "With this explosion of functionality, and applications and web services, how can we bring that together in a way that helps the user see that power and capability in a way that's more organized, and task centric?" The phone, he said, should have simple destinations for the most common things that people want to do.

Rather than blather on about the user experience, Belfiore then provided a short video that shows off the new functionality. It shows off a set of tiles, some square, some rectangular, each of which seems to be centered on a particular task. There's a phone tile, showing 2 messages waiting. A People tile. One for Text, and one for email (which is, stupidly, I think, named Outlook). Other tiles include Pictures, Xbox Live, Me, Friends, Internet Explorer, and Music+Video (which, curiously, is not called Zune for some reason). These tiles are initial plain and blue, but they quickly fill with animated photographical quality imagery.

The Music+Video interface, predictably, isn't just Zune-like, it's Zune. It features the same crossbar UI found in the Zune HD, and provides a nice 3D look, with images and lists seeming to hover over a more static background image. (It reminds me of the parallax scrolling effects common on the Amiga computer from 20 years ago, but photographic in quality instead of pixelated.) Pictures works like the Zune user experience, of course, but is separate for some reason.

People provides an aggregated view of what your contacts are up to, on Facebook, on Windows Live, and on Twitter.

Xbox Live lets you access your Xbox gamertag and avatard.

Windows Phone 7 start screen.

A different kind of phone

"We're super-excited to bring the design and the user experience and the feel of the phones forward," Belfiore added, going on to accentuate how Windows Phone 7 differs from the iPhone and thus makes sense in what is increasingly a crowded market. "What we're doing is building and delivering a different kind of phone. It's modern ... and unique and individual."

"There are two parts to this," he said. "First, we want a smart design that puts the user at the center of their experience." This echoes similar design goals for Belfiore's two previous products, Media Center and Zune, by the way, and that, too, is by design I'm sure. "We're moving beyond the phone as a PC-like item," he continued, "that moves beyond separate applications and brings together the key things that are important to people."

This is an important difference between the iPhone and Windows Phone. When you use an iPhone, you go into an app, which takes over the device. If you want to do something else, you must leave the first app, navigate around the home screens, find the new app, and launch that. Rinse, repeat. (And the iPhone's lack of a Back button let alone sophisticated multitasking is, of course, still a huge issue.)

"Second, we wanted to design integrated experiences," he said, touching on a cornerstone of the Zune and Xbox 360 strategies as well. "[These] become destinations for your most common tasks. Things like pictures, and music and video, and productivity. So that users have one simple place to go and access their web services, access the functionality in their applications, and access the data on their phone. Those are the fundamental ideas behind this new user experience."

Smart design

For the smart design aspect, Belfiore echoed what is clearly Apple's biggest strength in this market--the seamless connection between the hardware and software--and added a piece that Apple is still largely lacking, that third, and equally important bit of integration with back-end services. Yes, Apple does offer some basic services, but many of them additional pay features, like MobileMe, and not just something you get for adopting the iPhone platform (as, I think, they should be). Microsoft, meanwhile, has a vast array of online services that could prove quite compelling to consumers. And they're almost always free.

"We've tried to make hardware and software that work in unison, the way people want," he said. "For example, every Windows Phone 7 series device will have three hardware buttons on the front. Start, which gives you quick access to those live tiles you saw, glanceable information. Search, because the phone in your pocket is the way you're going to find phone numbers, and information about restaurants, and all kinds of other great things in the real world. And Back, because as you move from one experience to another, you want a simple and intuitive way, that's consistent with your experience on other devices, to go back to where you came from."

Amen to that, brother.

"Further, all of these devices will be capacitive touch enabled [like the iPhone or Google Nexus One] with big, beautiful screens," he added.

Again. Halleluiah.

"Second, we wanted to fundamentally focus on what's most important to each individual user, people that you really care about, make it deeply personal and relevant to your daily life," he said. "It should dynamically change to address where you are physically and what's happening with your friends and the people you care most about."

"Last, we wanted this experience to be delightful. And fun. A phone is an intimate piece of hardware that you carry with you. You don't just use it for 'functionality,' as a work tool or a home tool. It's an expression of your personality and who you are. It should be delightful and engaging and it should make people smile when they use it."

Now, there probably aren't that many people who act this way when using the typical Microsoft product. Windows 7, sometimes, yes. Xbox 360? Certainly. But that's pretty much it. So to achieve this level of delight, Windows Phone 7 is going to have to be something pretty special. To prove that this was possible, Belfiore then carted out a live, working device demo.

It features a slide-up lock screen, just like the Zune HD. The Start screen is a scrollable mesh of live tiles, like the Zune HD screen, in fact, such as when you're navigating music by album. The parallels between the Windows Phone 7 UI and that of the Zune HD are frequent and obvious, and most welcome. And if you've been looking for a Zune phone, please look no further. Clearly, this is it.

The live tiles are deeply customizable, of course, and provide information without having to dive into individual applications. (By comparison, the iPhone home screen is a static screen of icons in a grid, the only break in the monotony the occasional notification "burst" overlay, such as a number of unread emails on the Mail app icon.)

There's more. So much more. But for that, you'll have to continue to Part 2 of my preview. So far, I like what I'm seeing quite a bit.

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