Windows Phone - still not on message

Microsoft is in the same rush to ship Windows Phone that it was to fix its search engine by launching Bing. Microsoft veterans on both teams have told us (separately) of an unrivalled sense of urgency and purpose.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Microsoft is in the same rush to ship Windows Phone that it was to fix its search engine by launching Bing. Microsoft veterans on both teams have told us (separately) of an unrivalled sense of urgency and purpose. That worked well for Bing; it's doing well, gaining share and introducing some excellent tools (like the new integration of World Wide Telescope; look up from the map and you see the stars).

But for Windows Phone the desire to crack the iPhone market and to do it for the holiday season that Microsoft sees as its best chance to get good initial sales figures (back to school, Thanksgiving Black Friday and Christmas always pump up the numbers) is resulting in confusion and mixed messages. The Windows Phone 7 Series platform is a moving target.

Who's it for? Throughout the MIX conference, Microsoft was saying 'consumers', but then qualifying it. Larry Lieberman, the senior product manager for the Windows Phone developer experience (who also managed the content for the conference) told us the phone needed to scale to the size of a 'different audience' than Windows Mobile and talked about "wanting the everyday consumer to use it with a very strong expectation of quality and robustness". Todd Biggs, the director of product management for Windows Phone Marketplace, said "You may have heard us talk about it as a consumer phone. it's really a phone for people like you and me. It's more than just a consumer phone; it's a phone for people who have busy lives and it's about simplifying those. And on the Windows Blog right after the event Charlie Kindel explained that using the term consumer or end user was a way of telling developers that the user experience is the most important thing - plus the majority of phones are bought at retail, even if they're used for business.

Obviously, Microsoft wants both businesses and individuals to buy Windows Phone. No-one wants to carry two phones; if businesses want the productivity gains smartphones can bring by keeping people in touch, they need a phone people don't hate so much they don't use it and bring in their own iPhone or Android device instead. But would it really cause a problem to be saying 'this is a cool, shiny, desirable phone that also does business tasks really well'?

To say that, Microsoft would have to have actually decided on what Windows Phone 7 Series is and what it will do. The frenetic pace of development means no-one is quite sure yet. In a session, Charlie Kindel said that "In this release we focused on the consumer scenario of the consumer buying apps. In this release we do not support the enterprise scenario. This is something we absolutely want to do over time but in this release we are not." But the same day Todd Biggs told us that Microsoft would talk about enterprise deployment options in the spring (probably May), including ways to distribute software to beta testers, and he also promised an update on the possibility of subscription pricing, which Kindel suggested was off the table.

I'm excited about Silverlight 4 applications on the desktop getting right-mouse content menus and copy and paste; it means they can be closer to real apps. I regularly copy and paste between emails, text messages and Office documents on my Windows Mobile phone so while I love the idea of smart tags on phone numbers and addresses and other recognisable data types (especially the notion of using Bing to discover possible type of data and what to do with them), I was very disappointed when I was told by the Windows Phone team that there was no general-purpose copy and paste for the same of simplicity. Now blogger Long Zheng says he was told by someone close to the team that the copy and paste feature has already been designed and it's just a question of not having time to finish it for release, but it will come in an update. If that's true, why not say so? Microsoft is open about the 'painful' decision not to give developers access to SQL CE even though it's on the ROM; "it's really unfortunate," Lieberman told us," it's just the timeframe and we will get to it".

We haven't heard an alternative viewpoint on Lieberman's suggestion to us that Microsoft might not be comfortable with the idea of alternative browsers; he was careful to say it's not a definite policy, but it's something Microsoft will need to clarify officially fairly soon. (What we'd originally asked was whether Silverlight would be powerful enough to write a browser in, or whether a developer wanting to write a browser would need the same privileged low-level access Adobe is getting to put Flash onto Windows Phone - another situation that Microsoft has issued confusing and conflicting messages about). The position on multi-tasking hasn't changed; although corporate VP Scott Guthrie told us Windows Phone has a multi-tasking operating system, third party apps don't run in the background because Microsoft isn't certain they won't run down the battery, slow down the system or force users to close them from a task manager. And yes, Charlie Kindel confirmed to us, that applies to GPS navigation apps; so just like on the iPhone, if you answer a phone call, you lose your navigation.

Some of this may be changing because Microsoft is actually good at responding to feedback and they're reconsidering things after hearing some opinions. Some of it is that Microsoft is taking the opportunity of events like Mobile World Congress and MIX that happen at set times of the year to talk about something that will carry on changing for some while yet as the team tries to fit in everything they want to achieve and works out what it has to postpone until a later version. When we were told in February to wait until MIX to ask questions about the OS, that could mean they were still working on so much of this that they couldn't say. Some of it may simply be people who focus on one area not being up to date on other areas. I'm not sure I’d want Microsoft to take time away from building the Windows Phone OS to get everyone on the team on exactly the same page; if they're going to have devices in October they only have another few months to get it all done. But while Microsoft clearly wants to have separate conversations about the vision of the platform (MWC), the gaming aspects (GDC), the technical aspects for developers (MIX), the enterprise angle (May) and the finished system (when they launch), it's going to have to be much more on message to make that work.

For example , the Windows Phone team could be making a lot more noise about a feature that everyone who ever bought a Windows Mobile device and had to turn to the XDA Developers site to upgrade it to a later version of the OS will be absolutely delighted about. If you want a feature that is planned for a later version of Windows Phone, you won’t have to buy a new device to get it. Lieberman told us "We are going to have an update mechanism, over the air, that we are going to require OEMs and mobile operators to allow us to do". Mary

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