Seven big questions about the new Windows Phone 7 Series

I watched this week's announcement of the new Windows Phone 7 Series from afar. Still, even over the Internet, it was an impressive demo, and the post-announce buzz has been positive. I've come up with seven big questions that stand out in my mind, wondering about the missing apps, the long wait, and whether that awkward name is really a liability.

I watched this week's announcement of the new Windows Phone 7 Series over the web. It was in Barcelona, and I was stuck here at home digging out from under a mountain of work that piled up after a pleasant vacation. Still, even over the Internet, it was an impressive demo, and the post-announce buzz was uniformly positive. (ZDNet's coverage includes excellent posts from my compadres Mary Jo Foley, Matthew Miller, and Joel Evans, analysis by Larry Dignan, and a slick image gallery.) After looking at the announcement and thinking over its ramifications, I've come up with seven big questions that stand out in my mind.

Is this a complete reset of the Windows Mobile line? And can Microsoft pull it off?

This is a new operating system, a new user interface, and a new set of requirements on hardware makers. What's left? All in all, this is indeed a complete reset and a pretty spectacular admission that the old Windows Mobile line was years past its sell-by date.

The ZuneHD wasn't a mere media player, it was a stealth, hidden-in-plain-sight workout of a new hardware platform.

It does invite shuddering comparisons to the XP-to-Vista transition, doesn't it?

Fortunately, this isn't as big a leap as it appears. The hardware, the OS, and the new UI have already had a pretty thorough shakedown in the evolution of the Zune hardware, which culminated in the ZuneHD, which is impressive technically even if it hasn't been a hit sales-wise. For Zune-watchers who wondered why Microsoft was persisting in its seemingly quixotic competition with the iPod juggernaut, you now have your answer: The ZuneHD wasn't a mere media player, it was a stealth, hidden-in-plain-sight workout of a new hardware platform. Based on the ZuneHD experience, we already know what the UI and hardware can do at a minimum, and there are some pretty impressive new technologies in the Windows Phone 7.

There's a lot we can't evaluate about the Zune/WinPhone7 platform, because it's so opaque. Long Zheng identified the Zune's "Iris" UI framework several years ago, but we still know little about it. In a private conversation yesterday, Rafael Rivera called Iris "a huge blackbox of a framework" and promised to tear it apart to see what makes it tick. I'm looking forward to reading about his discoveries.

So yes, there are unmistakable similarities to the reset that resulted in Windows Vista, but three years later I think there's no question Microsoft has learned from those mistakes. No one within a thousand miles of Redmond wants to be associated with anything even remotely like another Vista, and there's enough understanding of where that project went wrong that I think history is unlikely to repeat here.

Page 2: Where are the apps? Why the wait? -->

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But where are the apps?

Patience, grasshopper.

Allow me to quote Microsoft's Charlie Kindel, who left the Windows Home Server group last year to work on this project:

There’s a whole bunch of stuff we did not announce today. Specifically we did not announce anything about building applications & games for the new Windows Phone 7 Series operating system. We did this because

(a) The new phone user experience we are talking about is so hugely cool we want people to be able to absorb it for a while, and…

(b) We are working on being able to tell the full story in March at the MIX10 conference in Las Vegas.  We have at least 12 sessions lined up and attendees will be the first to get access to the bits.

Oh yeah, I'll be at MIX10. Apple has stolen a trick from Microsoft's old playbook, defining the sheer number of iPhone apps as the criterion for success. Microsoft's challenge is to reframe that debate around apps that matter.

Wasn't this announcement a little early? Why such a long wait for the actual product?

At the Barcelona announcement, Microsoft never actually announced a ship date, only that it would be on sale for the "holiday season." For Windows 7, "holiday" meant October 22, but it could be a earlier or just a little later than that for the Windows Phone 7 products. If you assume a mid-October launch, that leaves about eight months from announce to on sale.

That's not out of line compared to the original iPhone, which was announced January 9, 2007 and available to the public on June 29, 2007, for a gap of nearly six months. Still, a lot can and will happen in the interim, including Apple's new iPhone and, oh yeah, the iPad. It will be interesting to see if either of those products can bring any surprises.

Page 3: Can partners trust Microsoft? -->

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Will Microsoft pull the rug out from under its competitors like it did with PlaysForSure?

Quick history lesson: Back in 2004, Microsoft announced a certification called PlaysForSure that allowed content providers and device makers to become full-fledged members of the Microsoft media ecosystem. Around the time of the Vista launch, PlaysForSure became part of the Certified for Windows Vista Standard. And then, in 2008, Microsoft introduced its own incompatible music service and device family called Zune. Today, PlaysForSure devices are museum pieces.

So, are partners who line up behind Windows Phone 7 Series playing Charlie Brown to Microsoft's Lucy, waiting for the football to be yanked away again?

Anything's possible, but my take is that it looks like Microsoft has done things right this time. With PlaysForSure, the coordination between device makers and the music standard was, to be kind, loose, and the result for customers was chaotic and unmanageable. This time the exact opposite is true. There's a rigid hardware spec, a UI that device makers won't be allowed to modify, and a Microsoft-run media ecosystem (Zune Marketplace and Xbox Live) that's already running smoothly. Phone makers have already seen a similar combo work just fine for AT&T with Apple. Whether this new ecosystem can make a dent in the Apple hegemony remains to be seen, but the pieces are solid.

Where does Silverlight fit in?

Again, we'll hear more about this at MIX10, but I've been waiting for this shoe to drop for several months. Back at PDC 09, there was one set of announcements that didn't make much sense at the time but does now. When Microsoft talked about Silverlight, they talked about writing apps that could run on all platforms, which means any app written with Windows Presentation Foundation can run on any device. If you write a Silverlight app it will run on Windows 7 and a new Windows Phone, and even on a Windows Tablet. In a story earlier this week, ChannelWeb quoted several anonymous sources who connected the dots neatly:

"Native Silverlight on Windows Phone is going to open it up to a huge amount of developers and create a large ecosystem for building and acquiring applications," said one source, who requested anonymity. "We have been waiting for this for a long time."

With Silverlight running natively on Windows Phone, developers can get started building apps with the Windows Phone SDK even though devices won't hit the market until the latter part of the year. "The best thing about Silverlight is that you can start designing applications before ever touching or seeing a Windows Phone device," said another source, who also requested anonymity.

Page 4: Too early to tell? Dumb name? -->

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Is it too early to pass judgment on the new Windows Phone?

Of course it is. It's always a mistake to judge any new product on the basis of a spec sheet and a tightly controlled demo. A handful of journalists were allowed a short amount of hands-on time with prototype devices at the launch event in Barcelona. Similarly, press who covered the iPad launch event were allowed to play with the device only under controlled conditions and only for a few minutes. I don't expect to see any in-depth, independent reviews of the iPad until it launches. We might, however, see some early reviews of Windows Phone 7 devices. It's possible, even likely that Microsoft and its partners will make early devices available to some reviewers, but that would be months from now at best.

Having said that, the new Windows Phone 7 products are like the iPad in another sense: Yes, both are new products, but many of their core features and technological building blocks are well known and tested. So anyone who has experience with an iPhone or iPod Touch has some familiarity with an iPad, just as anyone who uses a ZuneHD already knows at least some of what the new Windows Phone 7 Series devices can do.

But just as an iPad will assuredly not be "just a bigger iPod Touch," the new Windows phones won't be ZuneHD devices with phone features grafted on.

Isn't Windows Phone 7 Series a wretched name?

Yeah. So what else is new? But I don't think Microsoft expects consumers to pay much attention to that brand. If their strategy is successful, customers will think of the Windows Phone brand (sans version number) and the manufacturer's brand together. That's the way the whole partner system works.

Still, given the positive mojo that Windows 7 has, it certainly can't hurt to reuse that lucky number.

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