Windows Phone 7: Cheat Sheet

Can Microsoft lay the ghost of Windows Mobile to rest at last?

Can Microsoft lay the ghost of Windows Mobile to rest at last?

Windows 7, you say - haven't we already had a Cheat Sheet about that?
No. That was about Microsoft's desktop operating system Windows 7. This one is about Windows Phone 7, its new mobile OS.

Ah yes. But hang on - I thought Microsoft's mobile OS was called, well, Windows Mobile?
It was. But not any more.

OK, you better explain...
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. Windows Mobile has been the name of Microsoft's mobile operating system since 2003.

Back then, Windows Mobile was for business users, who were pretty much the only people who owned smartphones at the time. But increasingly the OS was finding its way onto consumer-focused handsets - handsets that were competing with OSes built expressly with consumers in mind, such as Apple's iOS and, a bit later, Google's Android platform.

Android phones are in the ascendant

Microsoft has found itself competing with the Android platform
(Photo credit: Jo Best/silicon.com)

These OSes were very different platforms to Windows Mobile, which treated mobiles as merely smaller versions of a PC and accordingly gave them a cut-down version of its desktop OS. The result was a terrible user experience - think lengthy text menus where the mobile user has to drill down and down, squinting into a small screen, to perform what should be effortless basic functions.

Don't remind me. I still have nightmares about Windows Mobile 6.1.
By 2008 - with the rise of capacitive touchscreen handsets such as Apple's iPhone - Microsoft's platform was starting to look very creaky indeed. Handset makers that had been using Windows Mobile for some time ended up adding a skin to the OS to cover its difficulties and give it a more user-friendly UI.

But despite all this outside effort, it didn't take mobile users long to drill down and find the same problematic platform lurking beneath. A skinned Windows Mobile device really was just a pig in lipstick.

The situation was not helped by Redmond continuing to charge a licence fee for its increasingly outdated software, while the likes of open-source Android and Symbian - the dominant OS which also ditched fees by going open source in 2008 - did not.

In 2009 Palm dropped Windows Mobile to focus on its own webOS effort and while HTC didn't...

...jettison Microsoft entirely, it did throw a lot of weight behind the Android platform. Other mobile makers that had previously paid for Microsoft's mobile software - such as LG, Motorola and Samsung - also signed up to the Android bandwagon.

Another thing that caught Microsoft napping was the rise of apps. Third-party app makers were getting busy creating iPhone apps for Apple's platform while others were eyeing Android's Market with interest.

Redmond opened its own app store, Windows Marketplace for Mobile, in autumn 2009, with a grand total of just 246 apps, compared with more 85,000 available for the iPhone.

You make it sound dire.
Things got pretty bad, yes. Of course Redmond had continued to iterate Windows Mobile over the years - Windows Mobile is up to version 6.5 now - bringing in various graphical facelifts and, latterly, attempts to make the platform more touchscreen-friendly. But none of these updates was enough for it to compete effectively against what were simply much better OSes.

Analysts began talking in terms of the last throw of the dice for Microsoft in mobile. The future certainly isn't looking rosy for Microsoft: its smartphone OS share is predicted to decline from 8.7 per cent in 2009 to just 3.9 per cent in 2014, according to analyst house Gartner. Indeed, Gartner believes Microsoft's platform will be relegated to sixth place by 2014.

Redmond desperately needs to pull something out of the bag - enter stage left Windows Phone 7, or WP7 for short.

At last. What's so great about Windows Phone 7, then?
Well, it's difficult to say how good it is yet, as no devices have been launched. WP7 handsets are expected next week.

But one thing is clear. WP7 is not just Windows Mobile in disguise. It's a completely new OS built entirely from scratch, rather than an evolution of Microsoft's other mobile effort, so it does mark a break with a troubled mobile past.

Redmond previewed WP7 earlier this year - announcing it in February at the Mobile World Congress where it showed a prototype handset featuring an entirely new UI and distinct new look for the OS.

"There's no question that we had to step back - a year and a half, two years ago - recast, re-form strategy, design approach," Ballmer said at the announcement of WP7.

"We hope 7's our lucky number," he added.

So it's not Windows Mobile - but what is it?
For the first time, Microsoft has designed a mobile platform with consumers in mind - so much so that enterprise users have been put on the backburner for now.

Wait a minute - is there nothing here for us business users at all then?
While WP7 is a consumer-centric platform, Microsoft has included the usual suspects of Exchange support, Microsoft Mobile Office, calendars, and there's an Office hub for productivity apps and document storage too.

The Microsoft Mobile Office hub in Windows Phone 7

The Office hub in WP7 - the additional content at the right is brought into view by swiping across the touchscreen
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft also envisages the platform growing up to fill the gap left by Windows Mobile, with all the device management functionality that implies. There's also no...

...provision yet to enable enterprises to deploy apps privately to WP7 devices - the public Windows Marketplace for Mobile is the only channel for app deployment.

Microsoft does plan to change that in future, but it's just not busting a gut to get any of this enterprise stuff sorted for version one.

Why has Microsoft fallen out of love with enterprise users?
It comes down to cold hard cash. The consumer market is the fastest growing segment at the moment and so it's where the cash lies.

So what about the consumer side of things? What can we expect there?
Like many rival consumer mobile platforms, WP7 has deeply integrated social networking services such as Facebook and Windows Live into its UI.

WP7's homescreen is made up of a series of so-called 'live tiles', which are populated by constantly-updating information sourced from the user's Facebook friends and other social networking services.

The OS also features a series of hubs including the People hub, the Pictures hub, the Games hub, and the Music and Video hub. These hubs display both local content that's stored on the phone and data pulled down from social networks and other online services.

Windows Phone 7 People hub, which aggregates contact information, social networking updates and emails into one menu on the device

The Windows Phone 7 People hub, which aggregates contact information, social networking updates and emails into one menu on the device
(Photo credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft is also setting minimum hardware specifications for WP7 devices, and it won't be letting mobile makers do any skinning anymore. WP7's look and feel is being tightly controlled by Redmond.

So what are these minimum hardware specs then?
Well, first up, a large capacitive touchscreen about four inches in size, plus a 1GHz processor, DirectX9 rendering-capable GPU, 256MB of RAM with at least 8GB of Flash memory, accelerometer, compass, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor and A-GPS, and a five-megapixel camera with flash.

Each WP7 device will also be required to have three physical buttons on the front - a back button, a button that takes the user to the homescreen, and a search key hardwired to Microsoft's search engine Bing.

Redmond has also said there will be two screen resolutions for WP7 devices - either 800 x 480 for large touchscreen devices with the potential for a slide-out Qwerty keyboard, or 480 x 320 for BlackBerry-style handsets that carry their Qwerty on the front of the device. Microsoft expects most WP7 devices to have the larger screen resolution at launch, with smaller resolution handsets coming later.

Who's going to be offering WP7 hardware?
Microsoft's device launch partners in February included...

...Asus, Dell, Garmin, HP, HTC, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Toshiba. However, since then, HP has confirmed it will only be using its own webOS platform for smartphones following its acquisition of Palm earlier this year - thereby scotching the prospect of an HP WP7 device.

So how successful is WP7 going to be?
At this point - with only a few WP7 demos to go on - it's hard to judge. The OS certainly appears very different to Windows Mobile, which has to be a good thing.

Windows Phone 7

An early version of Windows Phone 7 being demoed on a prototype handset earlier this year
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

There are now so many more successful vendors in the market that Redmond trails the pack by a good distance - it's going to have to work hard to win consumer and developer mindshare, and to build an effective ecosystem that keeps both camps locked in.

Speaking earlier this year, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi reckoned WP7 will still struggle to attract consumers, despite being aimed squarely at them. "Microsoft has a lot of challenges in the consumer market," she said. "They're very well positioned in enterprise - probably Windows 7 will still attract mainly business users first.

"[Microsoft's] share will decline in a considerable way because I think other platforms will be more competitive from a consumer and ecosystem perspective."

However the analyst didn't write off WP7 entirely. "There will be operators who will want to have Microsoft in their portfolio," she added. "Some vendors won't put everything in the hands of Android." And there lies Microsoft's biggest strength: its brand. However good or bad WP7 ends up being, Redmond's clout will give it a bit of momentum.

One more thing - I have to know. Is Windows Mobile finally dead then?
Not a chance. It has been demoted and rebranded though - it's now described by Microsoft as an operating system that sits on devices at the ruggedised, barcode-reading end of the device spectrum, for warehouse handhelds or devices carried by staff in the delivery industry, for instance. It now lives under Microsoft's Windows Embedded umbrella and for the record, Windows Mobile's new name is Windows Embedded Handheld.

So to sum up, WP7 is the culmination of Microsoft's epic journey to realising a phone is not a PC?
I couldn't have put it better myself.