A whole barrage of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) technical preview reviews have hit the interwebz and while I myself haven't handles a handset yet, the reviews leave a few important questions unanswered.
Note: One of the best reviews I've read is Matthew Miller's take on WP7, here on ZDNet. All videos in this post are from Miller's piece.
I've been waiting for the WP7 reviews to hit because I was hoping to get an answer to a question that's been nagging me for some time - what's WP7's killer feature? After all, the smartphone market is a highly competitive arena, and the best way to do that is to have that one, must have killer feature. Then, the rest of your product doesn't have to stand head and shoulders above the crowd. Consumers can then assume that product A is similar to product B, except that Product A has Killer feature X and product B has killer feature Z.
So, after reading over a dozen reviews, and pondering over them, let me tell you what WP7's killer feature is ...
... ummm, wait a minute ... yeah ... ermmmmm ...
OK, OK, you got me. Having read a bunch of reviews, I haven't come away with any clear picture of a definitive killer feature. Reviewers have done a decent job of laying bare the OS and the user interface (UI), but a killer feature remains elusive.
Now, you might be thinking that the killer feature of WP7 is the tile-based UI. I disagree. The UI is little more than a paradigm to allow the user to interact with a device. While Microsoft went for a tile-based paradigm, and Apple for lists, what really matters is the usability and functionality offered. Tiles might well be easier to operate with a finger, but at this stage the reviews don't give me any real answer to this.
Microsoft seems to make a lot of use of something it calls hubs. From what I can gather, hubs are the paradigm used to describe information centers. A key hub seems to be the social media one, which allows you to both keep updated and update others via third party services. My concern here is over building support for third party services into the OS. If Microsoft doesn't stay on top of things and releases timely updates, things could get pretty stale. Personally, I prefer the open market approach where these services are accessed via third party apps because in that situation there will always be someone else ready to pick up the slack.
Another worrying feature is the integration with Windows Live. Reviews I've read mention a setup process (something which in of itself sounds archaic, but I'll let that slide) that asks people to enter their Windows Live ID. Ummm, that's great for folks that use those service, but what if they don't? Are they expected to change the way they work just to fit in with the handset? To be fair, this lack of integrated support for third-party services is something that can be leveled at other players (Apple in particular), but let me remind you again that Microsoft is trying to break into a well established market with a brand new platform. You'd think that it would have learned some lessons from those already in the market. Maybe third-party developers will leap in to fill the gap, but it's far too early to know what will happen there.
And there's one of the keystone problems that faces Microsoft with WP7. With the iPhone, Apple first built a platform, then let it grow, and then, when it was clear that it was a success, bought developers on board. What Microsoft is having to do here is persuade developers to take a gamble on the platform being a success right from the start. That's not an easy thing to do, especially since we're all reeling from the mess death of Microsoft's Kin platform. Kin's smoking death crater serves to remind us that Microsoft, despite its billions, and masses of smart people, and huge ad budget, can still come up with a FAIL of EPIC proportions. Quality apps take time, effort, commitment and money to develop, so while Microsoft might have no trouble attracting a tsunami of "fart machines" and "101 sex positions" apps, the good stuff might take a while ... if it comes at all.
Negativity aside, it's good to see Microsoft putting pressure on OEMs to maintain a higher level of hardware and performance standards than previously. If WP7 is to have any chance, quality has to come into play. This can't be a race to the bottom in terms of hardware. However, looking at the reviews I couldn't help but notice how the handset was supplied to developers in bits which they had to assemble. Ummm, look at how Apple presents the iPhone. Are we learning yet?
I also worry that Microsoft is leaving too much to future updates. Users of existing smartphones have made it clear that they demand things like multitasking and cut/copy/paste. Microsoft is playing catchup right out of the gate. A few years ago this might not have been a problem, but it isn't a few years ago, is it?
Bottom line, I think that the success of WP7 hinges on price/service contract, integration with third-party services, and the quality of the apps, and at this stage it's difficult to comment on these aspects of the platform.