Microsoft Reboot: Windows Phone 7 Hands-on

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When you think about Microsoft, a lot of adjectives come to mind, but hip and cool are probably not among them. Many consumers associate Microsoft only with the Windows machine they’re using. And all those “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads have made Apple users like me feel kinda sorry for PCs.

But it’s a brand new decade, and Microsoft is about to leapfrog Apple and every other player in the mobile space with Windows Phone 7. Microsoft has built a cohesive eco-system of products that mainly live on their own outside of Windows. Microsoft’s Xbox gaming division has been wildly popular; since launching in 2005, more than 39 million Xbox 360s sold. Bing, believe it or not, averages over 3 billion queries a month and is carving out a nice piece of the market. Windows 7 has all but wiped the bitter aftertaste left by Vista. The most under-appreciated product in Microsoft’s vast portfolio, Zune, happens to be the catalyst that will put Microsoft ahead of Apple, Google, RIM and Palm in the mobile space.

(More on Techland: Xbox On WP7: Is Microsoft Finally Ready To Get Serious About Mobile Gaming?)

A fundamental flaw with most mobile platforms is the fragmentation of simple activities like viewing pictures, checking Facebook or sending Tweets because they’re contained within separate apps that you’re forced to choose between. Rather than simply replicating the Zune HD interface, which is extremely intuitive, the WP7 team started from scratch by focusing on the user experience and created six distinct “hubs” (People, Pictures, Games, Music+Video, Marketplace, Office) that aggregate relevant content like status updates from various social networks and photos on a per person basis in the People hub, for example. Photos and videos from your WP7 device, PC and various social networks live within the Pictures hub, which dynamically changes on the Start screen by rotating images so you’re never looking at a stale screen. You can even play an assortment of Xbox LIVE games, see Avatars, Achievements and Gamer Profiles right from your phone. Bing will have a dedicated hardware button for instant access to relevant Web or location-based results on every WP7 device.

Microsoft is also dictating hardware specs that manufacturers must adhere to but specific details are scant. We do know that all devices must have dedicated buttons for camera, search (Bing) and the Start screen. No more skins on top of WP7 from the likes of HTC either. All devices must be capacitive touch-screen as well. No official word on backwards compatibility (but we know it’s not going to happen) or whether or not WP7 devices can multi-task or run applications in the background. Support for Flash is also in the works. There is an app store and it goes by the name of Marketplace. Microsoft ensures us that there will be plenty of apps at launch.

(More on Techland: Windows Phone 7 In Action)

I was one of the first journalists to see a working build of Windows Phone 7, as well as access to a core group of the Windows Phone team before the official unveil by Steve Ballmer. At the time, it was difficult to comprehend or even put into words what I had just seen. In fact, I walked away wondering if the group of people I had spent the better part of my day with were actual Microsoft employees. Windows Phone 7 is drastically different than anything else Microsoft has produced in the mobile space. The team constantly referred to the project as a “gut check” because it was obvious that they had to do something different and they did.

So is Windows Phone 7 an iPhone killer? (Like you weren’t wondering that.) No. The iPhone may have revolutionized what a mobile phone can do, but WP7 is in a class of its own that everyone will be forced to chase. It’s a bit surreal to lust over a Microsoft product, much less a Windows Phone, but I’ll be first in line to get one.

BARCELONA, Spain — Feb. 15, 2010 — Today at Mobile World Congress 2010, Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled the next generation of Windows® Phones, Windows Phone 7 Series. With this new platform, Microsoft offers a fresh approach to phone software, distinguished by smart design and truly integrated experiences that bring to the surface the content people care about from the Web and applications. For the first time ever, Microsoft will bring together Xbox LIVE games and the Zune music and video experience on a mobile phone, exclusively on Windows Phone 7 Series. Partners have already started building phones; customers will be able to purchase the first phones in stores by holiday 2010.
“Today, I’m proud to introduce Windows Phone 7 Series, the next generation of Windows Phones,” said Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer at Microsoft. “In a crowded market filled with phones that look the same and do the same things, I challenged the team to deliver a different kind of mobile experience. Windows Phone 7 Series marks a turning point toward phones that truly reflect the speed of people’s lives and their need to connect to other people and all kinds of seamless experiences.”
Designed for Life in Motion
With Windows Phone 7 Series, Microsoft takes a fundamentally different approach to phone software. Smart design begins with a new, holistic design system that informs every aspect of the phone, from its visually appealing layout and motion to its function and hardware integration. On the Start screen, dynamically updated “live tiles” show users real-time content directly, breaking the mold of static icons that serve as an intermediate step on the way to an application. Create a tile of a friend, and the user gains a readable, up-to-date view of a friend’s latest pictures and posts, just by glancing at Start.
Every Windows Phone 7 Series phone will come with a dedicated hardware button for Bing, providing one-click access to search from anywhere on the phone, while a special implementation of Bing search provides intent-specific results, delivering the most relevant Web or local results, depending on the type of query.
Windows Phone 7 Series creates an unrivaled set of integrated experiences on a phone through Windows Phone hubs. Hubs bring together related content from the Web, applications and services into a single view to simplify common tasks. Windows Phone 7 Series includes six hubs built on specific themes reflecting activities that matter most to people:
• People. This hub delivers an engaging social experience by bringing together relevant content based on the person, including his or her live feeds from social networks and photos. It also provides a central place from which to post updates to Facebook and Windows Live in one step.
• Pictures. This hub makes it easy to share pictures and video to a social network in one step. Windows Phone 7 Series also brings together a user’s photos by integrating with the Web and PC, making the phone the ideal place to view a person’s entire picture and video collection.
• Games. This hub delivers the first and only official Xbox LIVE experience on a phone, including Xbox LIVE games, Spotlight feed and the ability to see a gamer’s avatar, Achievements and gamer profile. With more than 23 million active members around the world, Xbox LIVE unlocks a world of friends, games and entertainment on Xbox 360, and now also on Windows Phone 7 Series.
• Music + Video. This hub creates an incredible media experience that brings the best of Zune, including content from a user’s PC, online music services and even a built-in FM radio into one simple place that is all about music and video. Users can turn their media experience into a social one with Zune Social on a PC and share their media recommendations with like-minded music lovers. The playback experience is rich and easy to navigate, and immerses the listener in the content.
• Marketplace. This hub allows the user to easily discover and load the phone with certified applications and games.
• Office. This hub brings the familiar experience of the world’s leading productivity software to the Windows Phone. With access to Office, OneNote and SharePoint Workspace all in one place, users can easily read, edit and share documents. With the additional power of Outlook Mobile, users stay productive and up to date while on the go.

Availability
Partners from around the world have committed to include Windows Phone 7 Series in their portfolio plans. They include mobile operators AT&T, Deutsche Telekom AG, Orange, SFR, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Telstra, T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone, and manufacturers Dell, Garmin-Asus, HTC Corp., HP, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Qualcomm Inc. The first phones will be available by holiday 2010. Customers who would like to receive additional information about Windows Phone 7 Series and be notified when it is available can register at http://www.windowsphone7series.com.

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