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Windows Phone 7 Review, Part 5: Windows Phone at Work

While Windows Phone 7 is primarily aimed at consumers, it includes some surprisingly compelling productivity solutions, including what I now consider to be the single best email client on any major mobile platform. That said, Windows Phone 7 is a new platform, so it's all about compromise. And it seems like every time you uncover something wonderful, there's an unwanted little negative (or at least an inconsistency) sitting right around the corner. This is never truer than with the system's productivity solutions, which for the purposes of this review include the Internet Explorer Mobile web browser, the Bing search solution, Email, Calendar, People, and the Office hub. Let's dive right in.

Internet Explorer Mobile

In the future, I intend to present some interesting side-by-side comparisons of the Internet Explorer Mobile web browser in Windows Phone with the iPhone and Android browsers, using web sites that real people really use every day. For now, let's just say that the IE Mobile browser is actually pretty decent, if not as refined as that as the competition.

Under the covers--and God knows, certain people really do care about this for some reason--IE Mobile utilizes technology from the desktop versions of both Internet Explorer 7 and 8. (Or, as some have reported, IE Mobile is thus "based on" IE 7, meaning that it's old fashioned or something.) So the rendering code is largely from IE 7, but the JavaScript and entity extraction technologies are from IE 8. Whatever.

In real life, IE Mobile works just fine, sorry. Its fast, looks good, renders sites well (and generally using the "full" version of the sites; this is configurable), and uses subpixel rendering for great looking text.

Windows Phone 7 Review

Windows Phone 7 Review
IE Mobile.

Microsoft says that it approached the mobile web with a different philosophy than iPhone or Android. I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean, given that the web looks great on both of those platforms, but then IE isn't too shabby either. It supports all the multitouch navigation stuff you want (pinching, double-tap to zoom to selection, and so on), tabs ("pages," really), landscape mode (though without any window chrome at all), Favorites, web search (through Bing, see below), and Find on Page searching.

As for Windows Phone specific features, you can pin individual web sites to the Start screen (as you can on the iPhone, by the way). The resulting live tile is just a thumbnail of the site typically, and is often ugly, and is always non-dynamic. You can also share sites via Messaging, Windows Live, Outlook, Facebook, and other accounts, as is common throughout Windows Phone.

Windows Phone 7 Review
A pinned web page.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The IE App Bar with additional commands shown.

Windows Phone 7 Review
IE tabs.

IE Mobile has surprisingly decent downloading capabilities. You can save pictures from the web to the phone (into a special Saved Pictures folder in the Pictures hub), and IE Mobile can intelligently handle many common file types, including those for Office documents, text files, audio and video files, and ZIP files (which was surprising). Not so happy are PDF files (at least not yet) and EXE files.

Windows Phone 7 Review
ZIP files can be downloaded and then opened via IE.

IE Mobile would have been a revelation in 2007. As it is today, it's fine. It's not as nice looking as the iPhone or Android equivalents, but it gets the job done.

Bing and Bing Maps

Microsoft has deeply integrated its Bing search functionality into Windows Phone, and to good effect. For the most part, this phone's search functionality--which works in a context sensitive fashion in many applications--is quite nice. But there's one oddity. If you're familiar with the Bing app on the iPhone, you will be shocked to discover that the Windows Phone Bing app is, get this, not as good. On the iPhone, the Bing apps includes a number of UI features missing in Windows Phone, including a home button, back and forward buttons, and a grid of manual search types choice. So what you see in Windows Phone is far more streamlined. But in some cases it's almost more limited. Weird.

That said, the Bing app is at least attractive, assuming you can find it of course. There's no Bing live tile, or Bing app in the Apps list. Instead, you must tap the phone's hardware search button.

Like the web version of Bing, the Bing app displays an attractive picture of the day, with little callout boxes here and there onscreen. These boxes provide more information about the underlying image, and you can tap them to discover clues about the identity of the underlying image. (Secret: Tap the \[c\] in the bottom right to find out exactly what it is.)

Windows Phone 7 Review
Bing for Windows Phone 7.

To search with Bing, just type in the search box. The app's search results are returned in a standard Windows Phone pivot view with Web, Local, and News columns, and Bing will try to intelligently guess the correct column to display by default based on your search and your current location.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The attractive Bing search results.

Because Windows Phone will often be used on the go, the local results are often particularly useful, and local results are often accompanied by a lot of useful information, including a map (which triggers the excellent Bing Maps), directions, phone number, web site, reviews, and other nearby establishments.

Windows Phone 7 Review
Local searches often turn up maps and other useful information.

Bing Maps is particularly well done, with the nicest mobile map presentation I've seen so far. (Well. With one obvious exception: It only displays in portrait mode for some reason.) Bing Maps can be triggered from within Bing, but it can also be run separately (and pinned to the Start Menu), unlike Bing itself.

Windows Phone 7 Review
Bing Maps is attractive and useful.

Like other map solutions, Bing Maps works in one of two ways: You can use it to locate yourself, and find out where you are. Or you can use it to provide directions to another location. The default view style is, in my opinion, nearly perfect, but you can enable and aerial view, and Bing Maps will automagically trigger a satellite view when you zoom in enough. As with other map solutions, you can trigger a traffic overlay, and unlike with Google Maps, it doesn't hide the route numbers. (This is a major problem on the iPhone.)

Bing Maps supports turn-by-turn navigation, but it's step based and does not provide voice. Fuller navigation services can be provided by third party apps, like AT&T's Navigator, which is already available. (And, while instituting yet another monthly charge, is really nice. It also works in landscape mode, go figure.)

Email, calendar and contacts management

Email, calendar, and contacts management are intrinsically linked, with most people obtaining these services from the same source, be it Google (with Gmail and Google Calendar), Windows Live (with Hotmail), Exchange, or whatever. In Windows Phone 7, Microsoft provides mobile solutions for all three, as you'd expect. Sadly, the experience is completely different in all three. More sadly, the quality of the solutions varies between the three as well.

Consider the following: On Windows Phone, you can very easily handle multiple accounts, many of which support all three of these services. So you can have multiple sources of email, calendar, and contacts data, mixed up on the phone, and presented in various ways. I mentioned inconsistencies, and here is where it's the most profound.

Windows Phone 7 Review
Windows Phone's email app is one of its greatest features, with beautiful typography.

So Windows Phone supports multiple email accounts. But the email application (technically called Outlook Mail, but I just think of it as Mail) can only handle a single account at a time. There's no unified inbox, like you see on the iPhone. So each account that you configure for email creates a new instance of the Mail application, and a new live tile for the Start screen. If you have three email accounts, you'll have three Mail tiles. This is in direct opposition to the broader Windows Phone themes around integration and aggregation. And it's completely by design.

"There's no unified inbox because people think of separate email accounts as being separate," corporate vice president Joe Belfiore told me. "In the conversations we had with users, no one wanted a unified inbox." Well, I guess we'll see about that one. But Belfiore did say they'd readdress this issue if users complained. They will.

Contacts are, oddly, handled completely differently. As with email, Windows Phone supports multiple accounts for contacts. But unlike email, there's only one contacts application, the People hub. And it's dumb. And when I say dumb, I mean dumb with a capital D. It's just a raw list of every single one of your contacts, organized alphabetically, and that's true whether you have one source for contacts or 6. There's no way to filter the view to just a single account, so God help you if you have hundreds (or thousands) of contacts. It's perhaps the poorest UI in the whole phone.

Windows Phone 7 Review
It's just one big dumb list of contacts. With you right on top, for some reason.

Now, you're probably thinking that calendar handling is a third thing, but there's no way it could be completely different from both email and contacts. Wrong: Microsoft found a way. As with email and contacts, Windows Phone does support multiple calendar accounts too. Like contacts, but unlike email, the Calendar app will actually show you content from all configured contacts simultaneously, and it will even color-code them. But unlike contacts, it will also let you display and hide individual calendar sources on the fly. It's the best of both worlds.

Windows Phone 7 Review
With Calendar, you can individually display, hide, and color-code multiple calendar sources.

Well, it would be if it weren't for Calendar's single major and highly irritating flaw. It only works with primary calendars. So yes, you could actually configure 7 different Gmail accounts on your phone, each with its own set of Google Calendar-based calendars. But it will only display a single primary calendar for each source. So if you've gone to the effort to create multiple calendars (within Google Calendar or any other calendar account type)--you know, things like Home, Work, School, and whatnot--you're out of luck. Only one of them is making its way to the phone.

There's another oddity with these three beautiful but flawed apps. While Windows Phone supports UI themes that include a choice of dark (black, really) and light (white, really) background colors, the Mail app doesn't respect this choice. Here's what I mean. Using the default dark background, Mail uses a white background, People uses a black background, and Calendar uses a black background. Switch it to light, and Mail still uses a white background, and People and Calendar change to white. Daaahhhhh.... Don't get me wrong, Mail looks great with a white background. But give a guy the choice.

Looking past this silliness, both Mail and Calendar are excellent. Mail, in particular, is a favorite. It's as efficient as the iPhone's mail application, but thanks to the superior typography and presentation, the Windows Phone Mail app is the nicest I've ever used.

Windows Phone 7 Review
Emails from contacts will pick up photos from Facebook and elsewhere.

Calendar, too, is great, if you can get past the default calendar thing. The ability to get your next scheduled appointment from the live tile is handy, and while there are only a few view styles (Agenda and Day via the pivot and, illogically, a Month view that's only available via the App Bar), it's got color coding, a nice presentation, and really enjoyable reminders. (Seriously.)

Windows Phone 7 Review

People. I just ... wow. It's ill-conceived. There are basically three things going on in this hub. There's a dumb list of all your contacts (including a silly "Me" view, right at the top, just in case you want to know what you've been up to lately), a What's New feed for keeping up with your peeps via their connected social networks (Windows Live, Facebook, and so on), and a recent list, so you can quickly access the handful of contacts you 've most recently, um, contacted, via the People, Phone or Messaging interfaces. And ... that's it. This is a prime candidate for improvements in a future update.

While the People hub's contacts list is dumb, two niceties make it somewhat bearable. First, Microsoft has built a quick jump list grid into the list so that you can much more quickly scroll through the list. To access this grid, tap one of the colored letter boxes, instead of a contact. Then, in the grid that appears, simply select the first letter of the first name of the person you're looking for. The contacts list will jump immediately to that location. Second, you can also tap the phone's hardware Search button and start typing the name you're looking for.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The quick jump list grid is a nice feature.

There are many, much better, ways to handle this. And I point to the iPhone's Favorites list as one of them. I also point to the fact that Microsoft maintains a Favorites list of contacts (cough) in Windows Live Messenger and, thus, in Hotmail's contacts list too. If only there were a way.


Microsoft makes a big deal of the fact that Windows Phone contains a mobile version of its venerable and respected Office productivity suite. And it does. But this isn't the first mobile OS to include Office, as Windows Mobile has had Office for years. And here's a dark little truth Microsoft will never make a big deal out of: The version of Office 2010 that's available for Windows Mobile actually has a few useful features that are missing from the Windows Phone version.

Ouch. But it's not all bad. Assuming you're onboard with Office Mobile's core mission--i.e., it's an on-the-go companion to the real Office, and not a replacement--Office Mobile isn't half bad. It consists of five primary applications, OneNote Mobile, Word Mobile, Excel Mobile, PowerPoint Mobile, and SharePoint Workspace Mobile. Oddly, you can't run the apps individually, and they can't be found in the apps list or pinned individually to the Start screen (which I've complained about). Instead, you access these solutions through the new Office hub, which is of course new to Windows Phone.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The Office hub.

This hub currently includes four main sections, or columns, and their makeup and locations speaks volumes to how Microsoft thinks you'll use these solutions. That is, OneNote is first and foremost, because Windows Phone is a wonderful tool for making and accessing lists, and making notes, either text- or voice based. Next to the right is the Documents section, which provides access to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. And on the far right is SharePoint, through which you connect to SharePoint-based document repositories. (SharePoint 2010 only.)

As with the other productivity solutions, inconsistencies abound here. OneNote can sync, seamlessly and over the air, with SkyDrive, so you can access the same sets of notes automatically via OneNote 2010 on the PC, OneNote Mobile on the phone, and OneNote Web App on the web. That's amazing, and it really works, but it's a feature that's completely unavailable to the other Office Mobile solutions.

Windows Phone 7 Review
OneNote Mobile excels at lists and can auto-sync notes to SkyDrive.

Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Mobile are essentially viewer applications with light editing capabilities. Well, Word is. Excel is actually pretty powerful. And PowerPoint is almost functionally retarded: It offers only editing of text boxes.

Windows Phone 7 Review
Word Mobile.

Windows Phone 7 Review
A chart in Excel Mobile.

The SharePoint functionality in Windows Phone is superb. I tested this against my SharePoint 2010 server and was blown away by its ability to SharePoint libraries and lists. (Well, from within the firewall anyway; I don't have the necessary security software for this to work remotely.) The SharePoint experience is top notch, and it works with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. (But not OneNote.)

Windows Phone 7 Review
Accessing documents on my SharePoint server.

Amazingly--given that Microsoft just this year shipped its first SkyDrive-based version of Office, the Office Web Apps--Microsoft does not support SkyDrive sync in the same way it does SharePoint. So while you can sync notes as (ahem) noted above, you cannot sync Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents. That is inexcusable.

(Yes, you can browse to SkyDrive with IE and get the documents to the phone that way. But you can't upload them, at least not seamlessly, and with version control and checkout capabilities.)

Overall, this is a decent solution for note taking, document viewing, and quick and dirty editing. But that's about it. Windows Phone is the only modern smart phone platform that supports the real Microsoft Office, and while that's certainly something, I suspect this is a temporary situation. If Microsoft makes SkyDrive work like SharePoint on the phone, this could be a big win. Right now, it's a nicety.

Next up, Part 6: Windows Phone at Play...

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