Windows Phone: more smart, less phone?

Summary:Given that I've gone from a Windows Mobile fan to something of a Windows Mobile diehard in my phone use (I've been disappointed with the glacial development and short term solutions of the last two Windows Mobile releases even as I've enjoyed new features and the best mobile browser anywhere - Skyfire not Mobile IE, of course), I'm still undecided about how much I like Windows Phone 7.

Given that I've gone from a Windows Mobile fan to something of a Windows Mobile diehard in my phone use (I've been disappointed with the glacial development and short term solutions of the last two Windows Mobile releases even as I've enjoyed new features and the best mobile browser anywhere - Skyfire not Mobile IE, of course), I'm still undecided about how much I like Windows Phone 7.

One the one hand, it's a slick, responsive user interface - at least in the demos - that takes everything I love about Zune HD and brings it to photos and social updates. I like the idea of getting my favourite photo as the background and my online photos as the galleries because most of the time the photo I want to show someone isn't actually on my phone. And when I go to text someone, yes, I would like to see their updates so I know if email might be a better way to reach them; HTC and Motorola and, well, everyone, is jumping on this bandwagon. I'll miss the things I like about HTC's TouchFLO but it took the WinMo 6.5 version of that for me to stop hating it and I certainly won’t miss the awful rotating bars on the TG01 (or the messy Orange TG01 interface either).

If the scrolling is fast and smooth and responsive, I probably won't mind the lower information density - which is something the Windows Mobile team tells me that geeks and business users care more about and consumers tend to dislike. I want more than 5 emails on screen at a time and I'm not sure I'll get a full day of meetings on screen at once, but if I can swipe so fast I hardly notice I've moved then I won't complain.

That depends on Microsoft having thought the interface through and made it a good experience and Zune HD is a wonderful experience for music, so I'm going generously assume that this excellence will transfer across to all six 'hubs' of information and entertainment.

But what happens when I get outside of those hubs? Microsoft is going for an enveloping, encompassing experience that the WinPho team can make slick, responsive, intuitive, colourful, shiny and desirable. How will applications fit into this experience? Will they also be clear and intuitive and responsive? Or will they make it feel like I've dropped off a cliff?

And will they multitask? As an only occasional iPhone user I was reminded just yesterday why that's so important, as we tried to navigate to a data centre that - for security reasons - didn't have a map on its Web site, battling traffic, closed bridges and a GPS that thought number 115 was next to number 795. Every time I answered the phone to apologise and ask for yet more directions, the iPhone closed CoPilot and made me remember to restart it when I hung up (and then wait for it to reload, resync and tell us we just missed the turn). The only time apps close on WinMo 6.5 is when I tell them to or I run out of memory. What about WinPho?

According to some allegedly leaked documents for developers, yes - and maybe. Yes, Windows Phone OS is a "pre-emptive multitasking operating system" that "supports multiple processes running simultaneously on the system. There is no limit to the number of processes that can run on the phone. The only limit is the amount of available system resources...Threads can appear to perform more than one task at a time through pre-emptive multitasking, even though applications can’t run more than one thread at a time." That's a big improvement over the 32 process limit in Windows Mobile today.

Pre-emptive means that the scheduler gets to decide what processes get scheduled on the cpu at any given moment; there are 256 priority levels - and a phone call will beat all of those. This sounds similar to the multi-tasking in WinMo 6.5; if I don't have enough free memory, the system will close another app to make things work, but it won't force me to restart the GPS just because the phone rings.

How about compatibility? The Windows Phone application platform uses "technologies such as Silverlight, XNA and the .NET Compact Framework". Some WinMo apps are built using .NET CF, so there are possibilities for compatibility or at least easy porting. That doesn't mean they'll match the experience; Silverlight and the Xbox gaming framework XNA (which has some but not all of .NET CF) are more likely to deliver apps that match the Windows Phone feel. But will they give ambitious developers enough access? Many other apps are written in 'native code' that goes straight to the phone OS.

There will be, the document says, "a limited number of native APIs" and access to those is "limited to a defined subset driven by partner needs"; "partners can request access to native APIs" and if Microsoft agrees that this enables a scenario they want to enable, they'll document the APIs. So they're there, but you can't use them until Microsoft says so. And don't go rummaging for the APIs; Microsoft will check for them when developers submit to the Marketplace (which makes it more likely that apps will only be available through Marketplace). Phone manufacturers and mobile operators get "access to extra functionality" but given that Microsoft is trying to rein in the incompatible customisations that phone makers spend six months redoing for every new version of WinMo on every new phone, these aren’t going to be nearly as free and easy as they have been - and given what that's produced, it's probably a good thing.

Also, can Microsoft sort out its own mobile app development? The Office Mobile apps have a handful of changes in Office 2010, but far fewer than the Office team were hoping for (they don't develop those apps). I asked Greg Sullivan of the Windows Mobile team if he could make me not hate the updated Bing app that plasters ads over the information I've been searching for; we're not responsible for the Bing app he replied, and moved right along. It sounds like Microsoft is going to police external developers heavily - will it manage to deliver the requisite kicking internally?

It's all miles away from the busy and confusing 3D cube LG interface that Intel showed off on its Moorestown prototype. That definitely multi-tasks - we watched Avatar while creating a calendar appointment and flipping through umpteen indistinguishable icons - but I wouldn't call it easy to use. Intel director Pankaj Kedia told me recently "We think the smartphone of tomorrow will be more smart and less about phone...tomorrow's smartphone is looking more and more like a handheld computer". His phone bill for December was for two hours of phone calls and 6GB of data and Intel still thinks smartphones are actually mobile Internet devices first and foremost, with complex and powerful apps. Windows Phone 7 is closer to the iPhone approach, favouring a sleek, relatively closed experience over raw power or flexibility.

The big question for me is, will the experience be enough without killer apps, or will the developer platform and opportunity be enough to give us killer apps without breaking the experience? What Microsoft has shown so far isn't enough for a full smartphone - but it's probably the limit of what Microsoft can deliver itself.


Topics: Windows


Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Simon moved to the UK to attend the University of Bath where he studied electrical and electronic engineering. Since then a varied career has included being part of the team building the world's first solid state 30KW HF radio transmitter, writing electromagnetic modelling software for railguns, and t... Full Bio


Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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