The best thing about Windows Phone is the seamless way in which it aggregates content that's important from you, from all over the web, on your PC, and on the device itself, into a single, cohesive view. The problem with this approach, however, is that you need to do a bit of work up front.
Windows Phone's aggregation capabilities are based on those of Windows Live. Most people already have a Windows Live ID, which is required for a Hotmail account, Xbox LIVE Gamertag, and Zune Pass, and other useful and popular Microsoft-based online services. Your Windows Live ID is the key to interacting with not just these services, but also a slew of other, non-Microsoft online services, including Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, You Tube, LinkedIn, Pandora, SmugMug, and many, many more.
It's worth noting that you could use a Windows Phone without configuring a Windows Live ID account. But there's precious little reason to do, even if your main email, contacts, and calendar experiences happen through Gmail, Exchange, or some other account type. By properly creating and configuring a Windows Live ID, you will have the ultimate Windows Phone experience. And for this reason, I'm going to assume that you'll use a Windows Live ID and want it to be properly configured, ahead of time, for Windows Phone.
Indeed, my advice is to do this now, before Windows Phone arrives. You only have to do it once, it's not that hard or time consuming, and the rewards are very real. So let's see what you need to do.
Get a Windows Live ID
If you don't have one already, you'll want to create a Windows Live ID. This single sign-on service began life as Microsoft Passport, and some people still think of it as Passport or perhaps don't realize that they're the same thing. Chances are you already have one, as noted above. But if not, you can create a new Windows Live ID by visiting live.com (or passport.com, which curiously still exists).
Click the Sign Up button to proceed. Microsoft lets you choose between live.com and hotmail.com email addresses these days, but you can also use an existing email account from another service, like Gmail or whatever. Note that when you do so, however, you won't be able to use Hotmail for email, contacts, or calendar management. But you'll still get the other benefits around photos and feeds integration, described below.
Configure your Windows Live ID
If you already have a Windows Live ID, you can logon to live.com and examine your account profile. Chances are it's in need of updating anyway. From the main live.com page, click your account picture in the top left and choose Profile from the drop-down menu. Or, simply navigate to profile.live.com.
On this page, you can configure various settings for your Windows Live ID, but the most important, I think, is the privacy settings, which determine how (or if) your Windows Live information is shared with the outside world. So click the Privacy Settings link in the top menu to view the Privacy options page. There are three basic settings, Public, Limited, and Private, and while they may seem self-explanatory, it's worth actually examining what levels of protection each option provides. (Long-time Windows Live ID holders may have a fourth option, My Current Settings, which has more fine-grained customizations applied.) You can also click an Advanced link, at the bottom of this page, for an incredibly detailed set of privacy controls.
Back on the main Profile page, do also take the time to configure such things as your personal information (personal photo, contact information, work information, and so on), your status (which you can also change through Hotmail, Windows Live Messenger, Windows Phone, and other places), and any other details you think are important.
If you intend to use your Windows Live account as your main location for email, contacts, and calendar (which I don't necessarily recommend, by the way; in fact, I do not do this myself), you may want to import your existing contacts from your current account. Windows Live can import contacts from Outlook, Gmail, AOL, Facebook, MySpace, and other places. To examine this possibility, navigate to profile.live.com/connect.
Make the connection: Link your Windows Live ID to the services you care about
Now, you can begin thinking about linking your Windows Live ID to other online services. Not just Microsoft services, mind you, but also an ever-growing list of popular third party services. This occurs through the Windows Live Services page, which can be found at profile.live.com/services.
From here, you can look at the various services that are available and link relevant ones to your Windows Live account. For example, I use the Flickr photo sharing service, which happens to be owned by Yahoo!, and I have numerous friends on that service who post photos regularly. Thanks to this integration, I can view these photos, as they're posted, through Windows Phone, in the Pictures hub, which has a What's New list that's specifically designed to surface this kind of information. By linking Flickr to my Windows Live ID, I can enable that kind of functionality.
Other account types will surface on the phone in different ways, but for now the two primary integration points are the People hub, which provides access to your contacts, and the Pictures hub, which is obviously for photos. (And both offer a similar What's New list.) So if you connect your Windows Live ID to Facebook, for example, postings from your friends will go into your People hub's What's New list, and uploaded photos will go into the What's New list in Pictures.
This information isn't read-only, either. From within the phone, as you'll see later in this review, you can comment on others' posts and pictures, and maintain ongoing dialogs, all without ever leaving the single view on the Phone. So you could simultaneously access photos from Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, and SmugMug (for example), comment on each, react to other comments, and more, all from one UI. Try that on an iPhone.
The Windows Phone People hub features a What's New feed, in the center, that is autopopulated with content from your friends.
This connected services interface is, I think, Windows Live's biggest advantage and, by extension, also a key feature of Windows Phone as well. If you don't have a phone yet, you can preview how this information will appear by viewing the awkwardly named Messenger Social feed, either on the web (www.live.com) or in Windows Live Messenger 2011. As with the phone, both of these interfaces provide you with a way to both view and interact with content your friends have posted online ... no matter which services they use. Brilliant.
(Brilliant, but not perfect. What is? One huge limitation in this scheme is that Windows Live only allows you to connect to a single arbitrary RSS feed. So even though you may have multiple sites for which you'd like to receive updates, Windows Live only lets you connect with one feed. One workaround I've explored is using an RSS aggregator service like Friendfeed (friendfeed.com); with such a service you can connect to all the web site RSS feeds you want, and then connect Windows Live to your Friendfeed RSS feed. Yes, it's convoluted. But it's better than the alternative.)
Zune and Xbox Live
With a Windows Live ID, you can connect to Hotmail-based email, contacts, and calendar data on the phone, using nice Exchange ActiveSync-based, over-the-air, instant updating capabilities. You can connect implicitly to other online services, including Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, Pandora, and many others, thanks to Windows Live's services aggregation functionality. But there's still more. Two of the best reasons to use and maintain a Windows Live ID come directly from Microsoft. I'm referring of course to Zune and Xbox Live.
Zune is a suddenly very vibrant digital media platform that includes the Zune PC software, the Zune Pass monthly subscription, the Zune Social online community, various Zune portable devices (including the Zune HD and, now, Windows Phone), the Zune Marketplace online store for music, videos, podcasts, and apps, the Xbox 360 (which includes Zune Music and Video experiences), and even Bing, which offers Zune-based music playback in web search results. It's a lot of stuff when you lay it all out like that, and since Zune is an integrated part of the Windows Phone experience--indeed, the Zune PC software is literally the only way to interact with your device from the PC desktop--you're going to want to spend a bit more time looking at this, especially if you've been busy ignoring Zune for the past several years. (Don't worry, lots of people have.)
I'll examine various aspects of the Zune platform, as it applies to Windows Phone, throughout this review and elsewhere, but for now, the only important thing to do is to set up your Zune account, using that same main Windows Live ID account you've been nurturing. To do so, navigate to zune.net and click the Sign In link. Sign in with your Windows Live ID. There's not a lot in the way of configuration per se, but there are two important bits. First, you will need to decide whether you want to partake in Microsoft's Zune Social online community, which provides you with a way to share your musical likes and dislikes with others online. If you're an active music lover, you may already be doing so, but if not, just choose "Don't share" and move on.
Second, you'll be asked to create a Zune Tag. This is a name that will identify you to others in the Zune Social and, if you join Xbox LIVE as described below, it's the same name you'll use for gaming as well. (On Xbox Live, this name is called a Gamertag.) I recommend not getting cute here. While many people create nonsensical Zune Tags (nee Gamertags), remember that this is the name you'll use when you communicate with others. So rather than be known as Flatulent Fred or whatever, try to pick something that you won't be embarrassed by. I use my name for transparency reasons, and because I'm not a child.
If you are a gamer, you've certainly heard of Xbox, Microsoft's video game platform. It currently consists of the Xbox 360 video game console, the Xbox LIVE online gaming service, the Xbox Live Marketplace online store, the Games for Windows LIVE service, and, now with Microsoft's new smart phone, Windows Phone as well. If you were waiting for a handheld Xbox, your wait is over: Windows Phone is it.
As with Zune, you can associate your Windows Live account to an Xbox LIVE Gamertag. To do so, visit xbox.com and sign in with your Windows Live ID. Your Gamertag is part of a wider Xbox LIVE profile that also includes your gamer picture, gamer zone, and other data, and while the complete list of possibilities here could fill, say, a good portion of a book chapter (cough), let's just get it set up for now and move on.
Windows Phone and accounts
OK, hopefully by this point you have cultivated a dynamic, connected Windows Live ID. If so, you're ready to roll, for the most part. But I think it's also worth examining, briefly, the types of accounts you can configure on Windows Phone. Many are nervous that Windows Phone won't work with the accounts they use, or aren't interested in going all-in with a Windows Live ID. With only a few exceptions, however, you won't be disappointed. Windows Phone is, above all else, highly connected. And that's as true with account types as it is with everything else.
As I alluded to earlier, Windows Phone supports a single, "main" Windows Live account that will be connected to Hotmail-based email, calendar, and contacts data. How the phone interacts with each of these data sources is, sadly, confusingly different. For the main Windows Live account only, you cannot disable email or contacts. However, because of the way Windows Phone creates a different instance of the email application for each configured account, you can of course just not use the main Windows Live ID's email by removing that tile from your Start screen. And in the calendar app, you can also remove the display of calendar data from this main Windows Live ID. What you cannot do is stop Windows Phone from using the contacts in this main Windows Live ID. So if this isn't what you want, you could simply ensure there are no contacts associated with that account. Problem solved.
The main Windows Live ID also provides unique access to feeds and photos (via the What's New lists in People and Pictures) and connects to your Zune and Xbox Live accounts. So while you can in fact configure multiple Windows Live accounts on Windows Phone, only the main account will display photos data and will connect to Zune or Xbox LIVE. This means that you cannot configure one Windows Live ID for Zune, one for Xbox LIVE, and one for feeds and photos. They all have to be on the same ID.
If you do choose to configure secondary Windows Live accounts on Windows Phone, these accounts can only be used for email, contacts, and/or calendar. The ability to display or not display each of these data sources is, however, not subject to the same arbitrary limitations discussed for the main Windows Live ID: In fact, you can selectively choose to display email, contacts, or calendar data (i.e. it works the way it should always work). Interestingly, and this is a change from the beta, secondary Windows Live accounts will also display feeds data, in the People hub. (But not photos data, in Pictures.)
In addition to the Windows Live stuff, Microsoft also explicitly supports:
Outlook. Via a horribly named Outlook account type, you can configure any account based on Microsoft's Exchange Server (including Outlook Web App). This also includes account types that use Exchange ActiveSync (EAS), like Gmail and Hotmail. This account type supports email, contacts, and calendar.
Google. Windows Phone natively supports Gmail-based email, Google Calendar, and Gmail-based contacts. Note that while this does utilize EAS on the backend, you can actually configure Google accounts via this account type or Outlook. They appear to work identically.
Yahoo! Mail. Windows Phone supports only Yahoo! email, but not calendar or contacts.
Facebook. While it's possible to implicitly access Facebook data by aggregating your Facebook account through Windows Live, Microsoft also provides explicit access to Facebook via a Facebook account type. There's not a lot of configuration here: When you sign-in, you get access to your Facebook contacts, calendar, and feeds, and that's it. And you can't really configure it per se, other than to restrict which Facebook contacts appear in the People hub.
If you need to use another account type, Windows Phone provides an "Other Account" wizard for POP3 and IMAP-based email accounts, or you can utilize an Advanced Setup wizard that will attempt to detect the account type and configure it accordingly.
So Windows Phone handles multiple accounts with aplomb, including multiple accounts of the same type (except for Facebook). The weird thing about this system, as you'll see later in the review in more detail, is that Windows Phone handles each of the standard account services--email, calendar, and contacts--differently. Very differently, in fact.
For email, as noted above, Windows Phone will actually create a different instance of the email application for each configured account. So on my own phone, I have a Gmail (email) app, a Hotmail app, and a Windows Live app, each of which provides me with access to email from only that one account. That is, Windows Phone does not support a unified inbox, as you see on the iPhone or Android. Personally, I'm OK with this. But I could see this becoming a sticking point for some users and Microsoft says it will reevaluate that decision based on feedback.
For both contacts and calendars, integration is the theme. Microsoft dumps all contacts from every account into the People hub, and there's no way to filter the list by account type or whatever. It's pretty dumb, in fact, and I expect this to change in the coming year since Microsoft will surely receive a lot of complaints about this.
Calendar is a bit more sophisticated in that you can selectively enable and disable individual calendar sources from within the application, which is good. But Windows Phone only syncs the primary, or default, calendar from each supported account. So if you've gone to the trouble of making multiple calendars inside of Hotmail, Google Calendar, or Exchange, you're out of luck: Only one calendar will display on the phone. This, too, which be the subject of complaints and will, too, no likely be fixed in the coming year. But for now it's a problem, and something you need to be aware of upfront.
Obviously, choosing a phone is something that needs to happen ahead of time as well, but I'm not able to discuss my hands-on experience with several Windows Phone models quite yet. Stay tuned, though: Next week, I'll continue this review with a guide to choosing the right phone, the unboxing experience, a look at the Metro user interface, Windows Phone features for work and play, phone features, PC connectivity, online services, and much, much more. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I wanted to at least provide a common sense guide for what you should do before you get a phone so that the rest of the review can proceed accordingly. Hopefully, this will get you started down the right path and, as been the case for me certainly, get you excited about what is clearly the most important platform to come out of Redmond in a long, long time. Windows Phone is a game changer, people. And we're just getting started.