Microsoft is not a new player in the mobile market. Long before the world heard of iOS and Android they were shipping Windows Mobile on full touchscreen smartphones that were ahead of the curve in the stylus era. Microsoft lost the plot when it came to the new lot of capacitive screens and intuitive
UI. People no longer wanted a PC in their hands and that was where we believe Microsoft's learning had been over the past few years.
The first version of Windows Phone 7 was out in late 2010 and two major releases and a year later, a lot has changed. The platform is stronger than ever before and Redmond has a new partner in Nokia, the beleaguered mobile champion that is fighting its way back into the smartphone world. Windows Phone 7 came in with a radically different concept and the last release, dubbed 'Mango', adds much needed speed and over 500 new features.
iOS began with a homescreen full of icons and users kept on adding more in the form of apps. Android came in with multiple homescreens, widgets and an app drawer.
Windows Phone's Metro UI throws in live tiles on the homescreen and gives you one long list of all apps and settings on another screen. Users can pin any app or contact to start and it would show up as a live tile on the homescreen. The live tiles can throw basic updates, like the number of new emails, number of new Facebook / Twitter notifications or simply the number of missed calls. Though beautiful, this is a lot different than widgets on Android or the lockscreen on iOS 5 that would let you read the Twitter mentions, see who called or read a preview of an incoming message.
Windows Phone 7 visualizes any app as a large canvas and allows one to navigate through it as if you are moving the screen window within that canvas. So you don't jump into a hierarchy of menus but slide the canvas further to see something new. The beauty that Windows Phone manages is currently unmatched in the mobile space.However, we would wait and see how Microsoft answers the question of productivity with this design.
Each WP7 device has three hardware buttons below the display.These are standard across all devices - Back, Home and Search. At any point, while navigating within the interface, you can jump into the homescreen and press the back key to get back to where you were.
Mango update also brings multitasking to Windows phone. Windows Phone has no exit button for apps and thus the option users need to exercise is either using the back button to reach the previous screen or simply the home button. With the Mango update, users can long press the back key and reach the last 5 apps they used. This isn't the most productive multitasking gesture compared to task manager on Android, quick jump to any open app on iOS or even the card deck interface seen on webOS. It is common to come across the same app twice when using multitasking on Windows phone (say two different screens of the contact / phone app). Multitasking is one area we would expect to be tweaked with subsequent updates to Windows phone.
Social Media & Cloud
The new windows phone is loaded with social integration and I believe it is the best cloud + social mobile platform out there. Right from the first version of WP7, Microsoft managed to integrate Facebook at OS level. As you setup the device and configure your email IDs, you also get an option to integrate your social networks. With Mango, Microsoft has added Twitter and LinkedIn to the list. You can check-in to places, update status and check your notifications right from the ME tile. It has its own constraints as well; like you can’t reply to all when reverting a twitter mention nor can you see the news feed (both of these would require you to launch the official Facebook / Twitter app). And as I pointed before, you need to jump into the tile to get any info beyond the number of notifications or the name of the person commenting. Yet, the ME tile on WP7 is pretty handy and happens to be lot more productive than any social widget on a smartphone. It worked well even over an ordinary 2G EDGE connection.
The Facebook/Twitter integration also shows in your contacts and once you have synced your contacts the people hub syncs their display pictures and even their latest status updates.
The integrations are not limited to contacts or status updating, you can actually browse through all your Facebook albums in the Pictures hub. The albums aren't cached locally on your device by default, but as you access each of these albums, the Facebook photos are downloaded. You can see the comments on them and even add new comments right from the pictures hub. This should be a super delight for the ones uploading lots of photos to Facebook.
If you are a Facebook person, you would love the integration on Windows Phone, just watching the continuous flow of display pictures on the live tile is a delight to watch and remember friends. On the flip side, if you aren't a Facebook / Twitter person, the office and photo options are your only hope to get some value from a Windows Phone device.
Microsoft has integrated SkyDrive on WP7, throwing in 25GB of free storage. The SkyDrive account is mapped with your Hotmail/Live ID. This storage is mainly utilized for photos and documents upload from your Windows Phone.
WP7 makes a good push on the work side, syncing calendars, emails and contacts from your Google or Live account. At the moment Windows Phone 7 sets up each email account separately (in a new tile) and that turns out to be a good structure for ones who do not want their email accounts to be interconnected with a unified inbox or a single email app. The good part is that do have option to link inboxes together and that leaves you with more control on how you want to deal with different inboxes.
You can skim through the different tabs inside an email account, these are all (all emails), unread, flagged and urgent. The best part however about email on Windows Phone 7 is the fonts. Windows Phone 7 has the best readability for emails that we have ever seen on a mobile. You can also dig through all your folders/labels by jumping into options.
Selecting multiple emails and dealing with them together is easy using a small checklist button at the bottom which reveals a checkbox next to each email. You can also simply hit the left edge of the screen next to any email and the checkboxes would show up. Emails are threaded and we did see the WP7 email system getting confused with multiple emails with a blank subject being clubbed together in a thread. Other than that little glitch, the threading and emailing works well.
Microsoft has integrated Office, OneNote and Sharepoint right into Windows Phone 7. Opening attachments and reviewing them on word / excel is smooth. You can also choose to sync all your documents online to your SkyDrive account and access it anytime. Shifting a Windows Phone 7 device resulted in all my previous OneNote and Word & Excel files auto-syncing with the new device (downloads the file names initially and the complete file as you access it). For many who rely on office apps for Android & iOS, WP7's office integration is a big attraction.
The line between enterprise and consumers has blurred. Given the number of Fortune 500 companies testing / deploying the iPad and the iPhone, Microsoft sure knows that it needs to offer a mix of consumer and business features. While we would wait for phones with different form factors, Windows Phone 7 is believed to be a secure platform, given the tight control Microsoft maintains over the software and hardware.
Performance & Apps
When Windows Phone 7 came out last year, it was termed a good product but work in progress. With the Mango update, Microsoft matched the speed and flow of any latest smartphone OS. The responsiveness of the menus, camera & cloud, office, email etc is top-notch, almost everything that Microsoft bundles worked efficiently.
The deal isn't that attractive when you look at the third party apps. The feature set even for basic apps like Twitter / Facebook is far from matching their iOS & Android counterparts. For example, if you click a notification pertaining to a group in the Facebook app, it would launch a browser to show the content. The Twitter app has improved with the Mango update, far better from the initial sluggish days, however it still has many frustrations in its usability. The total number and quality of apps on the Marketplace isn't very encouraging either and most apps are expensive when compared to their pricing on the iTunes App Store and Android Market.
The apps situation should improve gradually as more Windows Phone devices make it to the market, also given the fact that the platform is just a year old. We would wait to see the marketplace get traction, but for now killer apps isn't an attraction for Windows Phone 7.
Nokia Windows Phones & Wrap-up
2012 holds the answer to what the mobile market would be for years to come. The top spots are taken by Android and iOS. With webOS and MeeGo falling out, Microsoft is making a come-back and a key partner for Redmond is Nokia. Reinventing itself with an entire range of Windows phones, the Finnish giant has a tough task at hand. Ability to roll-out low cost smartphones and good apps would be crucial for Nokia / WP7 to succeed. With the Metro UI laden Windows 8 making an entry in 2012 and given the traction tablets have, Microsoft seems to be in the game for now.
About the Author: Annkur P Agarwal is an technology enthusiast who has transitioned from a mobile retailer to reviewer. Currently he is giving the final touches to his babagiri project PriceBaba.com. You can connect with him on twitter @annkur.