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Windows Phone: Key Themes, Part 2: Seven Areas of Differentiation

Windows Phone: Key Themes
Part 2: Seven Areas of Differentiation

In Part 1 of this series last week, I examined Microsoft's key themes for Metro, the new Windows Phone user experience. This week, I'd like to highlight Microsoft's plans to differentiate Windows Phone from the competition. And using the company's own documentation as a guide, seven areas of differentiation emerge. Yes, these are defined by the software giant. But they provide an interesting peek into the thinking that went into Windows Phone.

These seven areas are:

1. The Start Experience
2. Social Communications
3. Hardware Choices
4. Photos
5. Location Aware Search
6. Gaming
7. Best in Business

1. The Start Experience

Microsoft's early Windows CE/Pocket PC systems offered a PC-like Start Menu in a bid to help users become more comfortable with the new form factor via a familiar UI. But this type of UI didn't translate well to the smaller screen used on such devices, so by the time Windows Mobile 6.5 arrived, the OS had transitioned to a touch-friendly Start screen that would form a very basic basis for what's coming in Windows Phone. But the regardless of the details, this "Start experience," as Microsoft calls it, serves a purpose: It's literally the starting point for most of your interactions with the device.

"Start is about getting stuff done, about getting you to what you want," Microsoft's Albert Shum said last month at the MIX'10 conference. "Our job is to help [users] find their apps." In other words, the Start experience doesn't have to be shiny and flashy, it needs instead to get out of the way and help users find the content or services they want. It is, put simply, "what matters first and foremost."

To this end, Microsoft will offer two Start experiences on Windows Phone. The default "glance and go" view is the boxy Windows Phone UI you've seen demoed so often, because it's new. It provides a very simple UI that is both personal and relevant to the user and connected to the online services that will help them stay up to date with the people and data that is most important to them. It features Live Tiles, those blocky colored squares that have become so controversial in certain circles, which will be updated in real time by Microsoft and third party software. It is, in effect, the primary way that any developer--including device makers and mobile carriers--can customize the phone interface and advertise (or notify) services and information.

Windows Phone: Key Themes, Part 2: Seven Areas of Differentiation

This UI is a clear shot across the bow of the iPhone, which offers only the most minimal possible notification system imaginable, i.e. a number in a red circle which overlays over an app icon. So if you have 3 email messages waiting to be read, for example, you'll see a red circle with a "3" above the Mail icon. Want to know more? You'll have to dive into the app. With Windows Phone, users will be able to receive much richer notifications from apps live these Live Tiles. Yes, you'll see a count of the unread email on the Mail tile, a count of pending voice mails on the Phone tile, and so on. But other tiles will present much more graphical information. Your People tile will animate with each contact's picture. The Pictures tile--which spans across the width of the screen, occupying twice the space of lesser tiles--will show photos from the device and various online services. The Xbox Live tile will display your avatar. And third parties can of course create their own customized tiles. Glance and go.

If you pine for a static, iPhone-style view of your available applications, have no fear: Windows Phone offers a secondary "get me there" Start experience, accessed by tapping the little arrow icon on the right side of the primary Start screen. This UI presents a scrollable list, similar to what's available now in Windows Mobile 6.5, but formatted a bit differently, of every single app on the device. "It's a simple list that people can quickly navigate," Shum said. "There are no fireworks going off. It's about helping people get to their apps."

Windows Phone: Key Themes, Part 2: Seven Areas of Differentiation

2. Social Communications

In an apps-based platform like the iPhone, users are expected to find and install those apps that are available for the social networking services--Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, whatever--that they use. But as with so many other aspects of Windows Phone, these services will simply be combined into a single, integrated view that will allow you to keep track of the family and friends you care about, all without having to move from app to app to make it happen.

This social connection nerdvana--the "here and now" as Microsoft calls it--exposes itself in various ways throughout the Windows Phone UI, but never more obviously than through the People hub and its associated Live Tile. No mere contacts list, the People hub provides quick and handy access to people you've recently interacted with, all of your contacts (across various services), and a cross-service "what's new" feed--really the primary aggregation point for all of those services you've joined.

This system achieves two very interesting goals: Thanks to a single (Windows Live-based) sign-on, you only have to configure the services you care about once, and that's true both on the device itself as well as out in the broader Internet, via Windows Live. And you don't have to manage or move in and out of different apps all the time. The result is a more seamless experience, one that is focused on the relationship that matter to you, not on apps.

Windows Phone: Key Themes, Part 2: Seven Areas of Differentiation

One of the other benefits of this kind of integration is that the people you care about become the focal point. If you've just spoken with someone on the phone, for example, their profile information will be available and you can then call them back, send them a text message, send them an email, or perform other actions, depending on which services are configured.

And if it's a person you really care about, you can tag that person as a Favorite (similar to the music ratings system in today's Zune software), which will promote that person as a Live Tile on your phone's Start page. Try that with an iPhone.

Windows Phone: Key Themes, Part 2: Seven Areas of Differentiation

3. Hardware Choices

Way back when Windows Phone was simply called Windows CE and Microsoft was just entering the market for what were then called Handheld PCs, the software giant made a decision that seemed to make plenty of sense at the time: Instead of creating its own devices, Microsoft would partner with device makers, as it did previously in the PC space, and sell them the software; these device makers would sell the devices, running Windows CE, to end users.

When Windows CE became Palm-Sized PC and then Pocket PC and then Windows Mobile, moving further and further into the phone space along the way, a third party was introduced into this sales system: The mobile carriers that provide the wireless access that makes today's smart phone so interesting. This three-tiered system has been a disaster for Windows Mobile users--who usually can't upgrade their devices to new software versions and often get access to new Microsoft OSes months or years after they're released--and Microsoft is doing it again with Windows Phone. Sounds like a problem, doesn't it?

The good news is that Microsoft has made some subtle but important changes to the way it does business. The company still believes that offering consumers a choice of devices--as happens in the PC market--via all of the wireless carriers makes sense. And it does, assuming the other limitations of this system are eliminated. Right now, for example, US customers can only purchase the iPhone from AT&T because of Apple's exclusive agreement with that company. But if you want a Windows Mobile (and, later, Windows Phone) device, you have a range of choices at each wireless carrier. Choice is good.

Microsoft is not allowing Windows Phone device makers or wireless carriers determine whether their users can get software updates. With this system, as in the PC space (and, as Apple does with the iPhone), Microsoft will be able to provide software updates and bug fixes via a Windows Update-like mechanism. (Which I assume will be called ... get this ... Windows Update.)

As for the time to market issues, I've been told casually that it behooves the wireless carriers to get the newest, coolest devices out to customers as quickly as possible. It is perhaps just a byproduct of this gadget-of-the-moment mentality that now drives this industry (witness the popularity of gadget blogs) that I believe this problem, too, will be alleviated. Certainly, there is some cachet around having a device available at a product's launch as well, so I think we'll see some decent choices in September. But it's also likely that more and more devices will limp out over the following year as well.

4. Photos

Portable devices like smart phones are now a primary way that people share photos with others. So it's no surprise that Windows Phone will be engineered to provide a first class photo viewing experience via its Pictures hub.

Again, comparisons to the iPhone are inevitable. If you want to view photos on your iPhone, you need to think in terms of the apps you have installed. Local photos--those taken with the device's camera or synced from the PC--are found in the Photos apps. Facebook photos can be found in the Facebook app. Other photos will be found in whatever other apps you've installed. And if you use a service that doesn't provide its own app, you can navigate to different web sites using the Safari browser app. On the iPhone, your photos are all over the place.

It should come as no surprise that Windows Phone doesn't work that way. Instead, it includes the Pictures hub, an extensible front-end to the photos stored directly on the phone and those found on an unlimited number of online services. These photos--located in different places, potentially all over the world--are all presented in a single cohesive UI. So instead of thinking "I need the Photos app for this" or "I need the Facebook app for that," you can just make the one-to-one connection between the pictures you want to see and the Pictures hub. Suddenly, photos just make sense.

Windows Phone: Key Themes, Part 2: Seven Areas of Differentiation

As a hub, or integrated experience, Pictures provides a panoramic view of these photos, with the phone's screen used a portal through which you can view, in essence, just a column, or portion, at a time. You can click left to right, and in reverse, across this panorama to see the content. And of course you can scroll up and down the graphical lists of pictures in each column.

In the Pictures hub, you'll see columns like Gallery and What's New, as well as specific columns for certain photo albums and services. And as third parties jump on board with innovative Windows Phone solutions of their own, they won't necessarily be exposed as single-use, tunnel-vision apps, as they are on the iPhone (though they can be, of course), but will instead integrate where appropriate with the hubs, like Pictures, that ship with the phone. It's a brave new world, and while these panoramic hubs will be available for different experiences in Windows Phone, the Pictures hub is such a great experience because it is, by definition, graphical and visual.

5. Location Aware Search

Phones lend themselves wonderfully to local search, because you're out and about with them and they have integrated GPS hardware that can tell onboard applications exactly where you are. What's a bit different in Windows Phone is that the Bing search experience is built-in and has its own hardware button (one of only three that are required on the face of all Windows Phone devices). Only Android, perhaps, offers a search solution (Google Search) that can be as tightly integrated with the underlying system.

"Search works contextually," Microsoft's Joe Belfiore said during a MIX'10 session last month. "If I'm in email, then it will search email. If I'm in the browser, or on Start, then search gives me the Bing experience." This Bing experience works and looks a lot like the Bing app for iPhone, if you're familiar with that.

"Thematically what we want search to do is work in such a way that it saves you work," Belfiore continued. "We say it's designed for life in motion' and the idea is to anticipate what people need." To this end, Bing supplies "instant answers" at the top of a list of search results, so if you type in an airline name and flight number or a town name and the word "weather", the appropriate result will appear right in the search results list, meaning you won't have to click further to find your answer.

Windows Phone: Key Themes, Part 2: Seven Areas of Differentiation

Contextual search works with many other searches, of course. If you search for a movie name (like "Avatar"), Bing will provide you with local movie times right in the search results list. But if you search for, say, "pasta," Bing will assume you're looking for a regular web search, and not a local search. You can override these settings using the familiar columnar navigational scheme that's found throughout Windows Phone.

OK, all phones offer some kind of search. And of the seven areas, this is the one where other devices like the iPhone and Android are already supplying what I would call a very competitive solution. But as Bing improves over time as a vertically oriented "decision engine," these benefits will propagate automatically to Windows Phone as well.

6. Gaming

There are a number of pieces of the Windows Phone story that have been misunderstood and, as a result, misrepresented. One of these is the Games hub, and Microsoft's decision to integrate its popular Xbox Live service with the phone. What's really happening here is that Microsoft is integrating the parts of Xbox Live that make sense on a phone. This is not "all of Xbox Live." Just the bits that make sense.

Organizationally speaking, the Games hub is made up of several columns, or areas, like the other panoramic experiences, or hubs. The first, called Collection, provides a graphical look at the games installed on the phone and looks and works like the Apps interface in today's Zune HD. But Collection goes further by providing a few additional features, including a spot at the bottom for advertised games. And by providing a pervasive "try for free" feature where game makers can provide free subsets of full games so that users can try them out and, hopefully, buy the full version.

The next column is Spotlight, and if you're familiar with the Xbox 360 Dashboard (called NXE), you'll recognize this as being analogous to the Spotlight UI there. And it does the same thing: Advertise "new and exciting and valuable" things to users, including game tips, new games, game demos, and so on.

In the next column, or area, called Xbox Live, you'll see a graphical representation of your customized Xbox Live avatar, along with your Gamertag and Gamerscore. These are all parts of your online persona, and while they began with Xbox Live and the Xbox 360, they've seen been ported to Games for Windows Live and, now, Windows Phone as well. By ported, I mean that there are (or will be) games on all three systems that access and write to this information, in the form of in-game achievements, which will impact your Gamerscore.

Next up is Requests, which includes invitations--also available on the Xbox 360--but also a new turn notification for a coming set of asynchronous, turn-based games. (Think of an ongoing game of chess where each player makes a move on their own schedule, over time.) This is new to Windows Phone but could presumably be used on the other platforms as well. That said, it probably makes the most sense on the phone, where users move in and out of device usage regularly.

Another possibility emerges. Because these turn-based games are written to Microsoft's XNA framework, it is possible that a developer might create different versions of the same turn-based game (Scrabble, Checkers, whatever) for the phone, the PC, and the Xbox 360. And then users could actually play asynchronously with others, regardless of which platform they are using. One could be on a PC, the other on the phone.

This capability, and the further possibility of live gameplay between players on different platforms, has led to another bit of confusion around the Games hub and Windows Phone's integration with Xbox Live. While this sort of thing is technically possible, it's not really the point. The point is to provide developers with a single environment from which they can target three different platforms--phone, PC, Xbox 360--at the same time. A more likely scenario is that a developer creates an XNA game that works across all three systems, and provides the user with a way to pick up in a game where they left off, across platforms. So you may start playing a game on the Xbox 360, say, and then pick up the action later on your phone.

This is all very powerful, and when you combine the capability with the native connectivity pieces in Xbox Live, you can see where Windows Phone provides a far more integrated gaming environment than what is possible on any other smart phone (i.e. the iPhone) let alone on dedicated gaming devices. Xbox Live is arguably the number one strength of the Xbox 360, and that will be true for Windows Phone as well from a gaming perspective.

7. Best in Business

One of the most widely misreported things I've read about Windows Phone 7 is that it's just aimed at consumers and will therefor leave business users out of the loop. To be fair to the fourth estate and its blogger brethren, however, even Microsoft hasn't been very clear about this and has taking up the consumer-oriented prowess of Windows Phone 7, often at the expense of its business capabilities. But if you thought Windows Phone was only for consumers, think again.

There's not much else to say here yet--expect some announcements around this over the next few months--but I'd point to Windows Mobile's enterprise feature set as an example of what you can expect for the baseline. It's not going to be horrible, and the fact that Microsoft is calling this out as one of just seven areas of differentiation speaks volumes, I think, about what's really happening in this space.

Looking ahead

These seven areas of differentiation are, I think, eye-opening. That's because each of them is an improvement over at least one of the major competitors--of which I would include both the iPhone and Android--and some are improvements over both. In that sense, they really are differentiators, though of course Microsoft's lag time between announcement and release have given the competition a chance to sneak in some updates of their own. (This very week, Apple announced iPhone 4.0, which will include Windows Phone-like multitasking capabilities and an Xbox Live rip-off service called Game Center.)

Next up, we'll examine the third set of key themes for Windows Phone, what I call the system's guiding principles. Microsoft calls these "red lines" for some reason, and we'll find out why that is as well as what they are.

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