Microsoft set a very firm spec for Windows Phone 7 and the user interface is the same on all devices. There's only one handset so far with a keyboard (the Dell Venue Pro, soon to be followed by the HTC Arrive for Spring customers in the US). So does that mean that whatever Windows Phone you pick, you'll have exactly the same experience? Not quite.
The problems with the first update Microsoft has been pushing out - an update that has done an excellent job of what it was supposed to do, which was test and improve the update procedure, albeit at the cost of confusing users who are upset at not getting an update that doesn't give them extra features and upsetting users who ran into problems with the update - were confined to the backlash of bad publicity and Samsung devices, so the setup of these devices is obviously different. If you're cynical and you've been following the mobile market for some years, you might conclude that some handset manufacturers are simply better at getting the details right than others. The list of which operators are still testing the updates that Microsoft finally released is also an interesting study in different approaches.
But assuming that handset makers choose to stick with a touchscreen only phone and they can’t choose extra buttons to put on it and they don’t make a mess of the firmware and registry, there's still more too it than how thick the device is, what style of case it has or what screen technology they choose. I mean I personally like the capacitive buttons on the HTC HD7, you might prefer the physical clicking buttons on the LG Optimus 7 (they have a lovely positive action) but that's not real differentiation. What handset makers - and operators - can do is enhance Windows Phone with extra software.
The LG Optimus 7 from Vodafone is a great example of this. It comes with handy apps preinstalled like a tool for composing panorama photos, ScanSearch - an augmented reality search tool that tags interesting places to go on a live camera view - and PlayTo.
This is the ScanSearch scene in LA; the results in London are different but about as useful.
PlayTo is the simple interface for a hugely useful tool that only LG has put into Windows Phone 7 so far; like the Windows Media Player feature in Windows 7, it lets you play content form your phone on any DLNA-aware device on your network. That means you can show your phone photos and videos on your PC - or on your TV if it has DLNA support. I'm typing this listening to music from my phone on the elderly Sonos ZonePlayer in our office. And you don't have to be a network genius to make it work; the app shows a list of devices, you pick the type of content and then the actual files and it just works. DLNA support takes extra software and firmware support and it's a great feature.
Look in the Marketplace and there are 18 more apps, ranging from a basic Today screen to a voice recognition tool. There are free versions of popular apps like Photo Stylist (for jazzing up your phone snaps). I particularly like Metro Scanner, which finds nearby public transport and shows you on a map where it is and how far you'll have to walk.
With 10,000 apps in the Windows Phone marketplace and about 100 coming through every day there's plenty to choose from. But picking the best and giving them to people who bought your phone is a great way to keep them liking your phone. LG is planning to keep on adding free apps every month; that means every month you get a reason to be glad you picked this particular Windows Phone.
Oh, and it got the update-updating update a couple of days after I turned it on, and updated without any problems. Vodafone, 3 and O2 customers should all be getting the first update now if they don’t already have it (and the second NoDo update is marked as 'scheduling' which means Microsoft is loading the updates into their content delivery network ready to push out (which can still take up to four weeks). Amazingly T Mobile is still testing and Orange seems to have waited and tested both updates together, as both are 'scheduling' - which should make for even more user confusion about what update they're getting and when.
Really, it makes NoDo an unfortunate name for the first significant Windows Phone 7 update (which I'm itching to get to make it easier to convert email messages into appointments without pulling out my PC). Microsoft is struggling with its usual reluctance to name and shame partners causing problems (and its usual preference to concentrate on finding and fixing the problem rather than complaining about it), and many of the complaints about the slowness of the update, while heartfelt, assume that every rumour about when the NoDo update was completed and how little work it should be to test are gospel truth. Actually, unless you work at Microsoft or a carrier we don't know who's delaying what. But to customer who are now worrying that they committed to a platform that maybe Microsoft can't push forward as quickly as it would like, the update issue has become a test of faith. At this point, Microsoft should try over-sharing a little, so that the excitement of seeing IE9 on Windows Phone 7 at MIX next month doesn't immediately turn to frustration over when it will arrive on handsets.